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To Catfish or Not to Catfish?

CASE STUDY: The Ethics of Online Deception

Case Study PDF | Additional Case Studies

Thanks to director, producer, and writer Nev Schulman, most of us know the dangers of “catfishing” because his popular MTV television show, Catfish, highlights how quickly online deception can go wrong. “Catfishing” has gained enough traction in popular usage to warrant its addition to our lexicon. One newly-added definition of “catfishingis “to deceive (someone) by creating a false personal profile online” (Merriam-Webster, 2018).

Why would anyone engage in such digital deception? The person doing the catfishing—the catfish, in other words—may lie for a number of reasons, but in most cases this deception comes from a desire to create and sustain a relationship (usually romantic) with someone they believe would reject them were they to act in a fully transparent manner. A catfish often feels motivated by and overwhelmed with feelings of uncertainty, loneliness and dejection. By creating a persona that is far from their own, they feel more confident to connect with others online; some even develop lasting relationships with their “catfishee.” Online identities are easily fabricated because there is no fact-checker peering over our shoulders to make sure we present ourselves as accurately as possible. Sharon Coen of the University of Salford says that catfishing “offers an opportunity for people to try on different identities, and interact with others on the basis of that identity.” She emphasizes that younger people often experience this need for experimentation with their identities, including catfishing “to express parts of one’s identity which are not acceptable according to social norms.” This could include a fear of publicizing their sexuality, race, physical appearance, health issues, or other such factors open to social pressures. For these reasons, many people like Nev Schulman empathize with the acts of the catfisher. Beyond this, he even claims that there is some benefit to the catfishee—they are flattered and take part in a meaningful relationship that, while not real in some respects, is a rewarding fantasy in other ways. In his book, Schulman says that “addicted, emotionally dependent, and in too deep, the catfished hopefuls end up turning a blind eye… the catfish makes them feel special… they make them feel loved” (Schulman, 2014).

Many still believe the ethical problem with catfishing is clear. It’s a deceptive presentation of self in relationships that are supposed to be very close and trusting. Even though many catfishers do not intend to act maliciously with their lies, some utilize this deception to gain monetary favors and gifts from the deceived catfishee.  Furthermore, the catfishee is robbed of time and effort they have invested in a relationship with someone who isn’t who they said they were. As shown on Catfish, the catfishees express a number of emotions when they discover the true identity of their online relational partner: some display feelings of anger and betrayal, others feel worthless for not being told the truth, and some feel more insecurity as a result of this deception. The deception hurts, but the illusion could be comforting if it’s maintained.  Things that could be verified or falsified with a quick Google search are ignored. “Finding out that the thing that makes you happy and distracts you from all your problems isn’t real is not what people want” Schulman says, “so they choose not to” (Horn, 2014).

Catfishing is only becoming easier—and more worrisome–with the increasing popularity of social media and online dating apps like Tinder and Bumble. Some may even consider sprinkling white lies across your dating profile a form of catfishing. This further complicates the line on what constitutes catfishing and what is just image management in a complex online environment.  How much truth should there be in our relationships and identities in the digital realm?

Discussion Questions:

  1. What is the ethical problem with catfishing? What values are in conflict in this case study?
  2. Does it matter if the catfish does not hope for an “offline” relationship, or if the relationship was composed of only online interactions?
  3. Assuming that the act of catfishing was not connected to a plan of defrauding the catfishee of money or goods, is the act of catfishing morally worrisome? Why or why not?
  4. How much of your real identity do you owe to people online? What principles should guide us in our interactions with others who may not fully know who we are?
  5. Why is transparency of identity ethically good in online interactions? Can you see times when hiding one’s identity online—or changing it—is an ethically good thing?

Further Information:

Coen, Sharon. “Not all online catfish are bad, but strong communities can net the ones that are.” The Conversation, September 28, 2015. Available at:

Horn, Leslie. “The Psychology of Catfishing, From Its First Public Victim.” Gizmodo, September 2, 2014. Available at:

Martin, Denise. “Here’s How MTV’s Catfish Actually Works.” Vulture, May 21, 2014. Available at:

Ossad, Jordana. “’Catfish’ Detective Nev Schluman’s Top Digital Dating Tips: Less Emojis, More Face Time.” MTV, June 26, 2014. Available at:

Puppyteeth, Jaik. “Is it OK to Be a Casual Catfish?” Vice, February 5, 2017. Available at:

Schulman, Nev. In Real Life: Love, Lies & Identity in the Digital Age. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2014.


Alex Purcell & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
November 5, 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 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.

Disrupting Journalism Ethics

The Center for Media Engagement and Media Ethics Initiative Present:

Journalism Ethics amid Irrational Publics: Disrupt and Redesign

Dr. Stephen J. A. Ward

Distinguished Lecturer, University of British Columbia
Founding Director, Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin

November 5, 2018


Dr. Stephen J. A. Ward is an internationally recognized media ethicist, author and educator, living in Canada. He is a Distinguished Lecturer on Ethics at the University of British Columbia, founding director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin, and director of the UBC School of Journalism. He was a war correspondent, foreign reporter and newsroom manager for 14 years and has received a lifetime award for service to professional journalism in Canada. He is editor-in-chief of the forthcoming Springer Handbook for Global Mediaward2 Ethics, and was associate editor of the Journal of Media Ethics. Dr. Ward is the author of 9 media ethics books, including two award-winning books, Radical Media Ethics and The Invention of Journalism Ethics. Also he is the author of Global Journalism Ethics, Ethics and the Media, and Global Media Ethics: Problems and Perspectives. His two new books, Disrupting Journalism Ethics and Ethical Journalism in a Populist Age were published in 2018.

Co-sponsored by the University of Texas at Austin’s School of Journalism

The Media Ethics Initiative is part of the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin. Follow MEI and CME on Facebook for more information. Media Ethics Initiative events are open and free to the public.



Ethics in Public Relations

The Center for Media Engagement and Media Ethics Initiative Present:

What are the Ethical Challenges in Public Relations Practice?

Kathleen Lucente
Founder & President of Red Fan Communications

October 30, 2018



After a successful and award-winning career working for IBM, J.P. Morgan, Ketchum Worldwide and other global brands and agencies, Kathleen Lucente moved to Austin just as the city began its meteoric rise as a hotbed for tech startups and investment. She is the founder and president of Red Fan Communications, an Austin-based public relations firm that has helped countless companies clarify their purpose, tell their unique stories, and establish lasting relationships with clients and customers. She serves on several boards and donates much of her and her staff

’s time to local nonprofits that have tangible impact throughout the community, including the Trail of Lights, the ABC Kite Fest, the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians, and the Susan G. Komen Foundation.

The Media Ethics Initiative is part of the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin. Follow MEI and CME on Facebook for more information. Media Ethics Initiative events are open and free to the public.


Meet the Research Associate: Justin Pehoski

Justin_Pehoski_PhotoJustin Pehoski is a Media Ethics Initiative Research Associate assisting with administrative responsibilities and event planning. He will also be assisting Dr. Stroud and the Media Ethics Initiative Research Scholars with the case study editing. Justin is pursuing a graduate degree in Communication Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. His research interests include media ethics, pragmatism and rhetoric, public discourse, and philosophy of communication. He holds B.A. degrees in Psychology and Journalism from California State University, Chico, home of the multi-award-winning student newspaper The Orion. For two years he served as assistant managing editor of the Paradise Post which twice won the California Newspaper Publishers Association first-place award for general excellence.


Values Preserved in Stone

CASE STUDY: The Ethics of Confederate Memorials

Case Study PDF | Additional Case Studies

Jesus Nazario Photo cropped

Photo: Jesus Nazario

In the dead of night of August 20, 2018, the University of Texas removed four statues on the south mall of the campus. Three of these statues depicted the Confederate leaders: Robert E. Lee, Albert Sidney Johnston, and John Reagan. The statues were removed in response to violent protests over Confederate monuments in Charlotte, Virginia. Two years before these statues were removed, the university took down a prominent statue of Jefferson Davis, the Confederate president. The University of Texas president, Gregory Fenves, stated that these statues were removed because they are depictions “that run counter to the university’s core values.” The men portrayed by the statues were important figures in the history of the Civil War and the United States, but many argue that they stood for a cause that is contrary to the values of our current society. Much debate has risen as to whether figures like these should be presented and honored in our public areas.

Some argue that these statues must remain to remind us of our nation’s history, whether that history is good or bad. They claim that these monuments do not have to represent a celebration of slavery or a commemoration to the Confederacy, but rather as a reminder of our past. For instance, Lawrence Kuznar of the Washington Post argues that “when racists revere these monuments, those of us who oppose racism should double our efforts to use these monuments as tools for education. Auschwitz and Dachau stand as mute testimonials to a past that Europeans would never want to forget or repeat. Why not our Confederate monuments?” In an attempt to shift the focus of these monuments to education, many local governments have chosen to supplement confederate monuments with additional context and information to increase its educational value. For example, a historical commission in Raleigh, North Carolina voted to supplement its confederate statues “with adjacent signs about ‘the consequences of slavery’ and the ‘subsequent oppressive subjugation of African American people.’” Supplemental information is provided to help to relieve the negative effect of the statues while maintaining or increasing their educational value.

To many other observers, however, these statues can only be perceived as a symbolic celebration of white power and racial inequality because of the people they depict. To some, the symbolic significance of the statues outweighs any historical significance. Ilya Somin, a professor at George Mason University, believes that “no one claims that we should erase the Confederacy and its leaders from the historical record. Far from it. We should certainly remember them and continue to study their history. We just should not honor them.” The men commemorated by the statues in discussion fought to defend slavery. Although the institution of slavery has been removed from the United States, racial divides still dominate much of the social and political discourse. For opponents of these statues on Texas’s campus, honoring these white men who risked their lives and the unity of their country to protect their right to enslave others does not present a positive image for furthering the contemporary cause of racial equality. The historical lesson depicted by these statues could, some argue, be preserved in a museum without the implications of placing a negative symbol in a public area.

empty statue

Photo: Colin Frick

Proponents of the removal of confederate statues often challenge the primary motivations for building these statues. Typically, the statues in question were not created during the Civil War or even during the reconstruction era. The four confederate statues at UT were placed in 1933, nearly 70 years after the end of the Civil War. Some argue that the decision to commemorate the Confederate leaders may reveal more about the statues’ builders’ desires to maintain segregation in the 1930s than the commemorated men’s fight to protect slavery in the late 1800s. The University of Texas president, Gregory Fenves, defended the University’s decision to remove the statues by referencing the historical context of when the statues were built. He argued that because the statues were “erected during the period of Jim Crow laws and segregation” this implied that “the statues represent the subjugation of African Americans.” The statues were commissioned by George Littlefield, a man who supported segregation so strongly that “the inscription on his namesake fountain honors the South’s fight for secession.” Supporters of the removal of the statues contend that the statues do not create a welcoming educational environment for African American students, past or present.

Statues of notable figures as those that dot campuses such as the University of Texas at Austin provide a powerful way to integrate the history of regions and institutions into everyday spaces. But they also enshrine histories that are value-laden, and our moral values change over time. Who should be honored in our monuments, and when should we knock certain figures off their literal pedestals in our public spaces?

Discussion Questions:

  1. What are the various values in conflict when it comes to monuments honoring confederate leaders?
  2. What role to the motives or intentions of those who installed the statue play in the ethics of removing or leaving in place such statues? What role do our contemporary reactions to the memorialized figures play these disputes?
  3.  To what lengths can communities go in their quest to remove these statues? Is vandalism and destruction of these statues ethically problematic? Why or why not?
  4. Is there any hope for these statues being “reframed” in public spaces? Or is removal the only option?
  5. Are there any ethical issues or considerations that must be dealt with if the removed statues are displayed elsewhere, such as in a museum?

Further Information:

Nelson, Sophia. “Opinion: Don’t Take Down Confederate Monuments. Here’s Why.” NBC News, June 1, 2017. Available at: confederate-monuments-should-stay-ncna767221

Kuznar, Lawrence. “I detest our Confederate monuments. But they should remain.” The Washington Post, August 18,  2017. Available at:

Watkins, Matthew. “UT-Austin removes Confederate statues in the middle of the night.” Texas Tribune, August 21, 2017. Available at:

Somin, Ilya. “The case for taking down Confederate monuments.” The Washington Post, May 17, 2017. Available at

Waggoner, Martha & Robertson, Gary. “North Carolina will keep 3 Confederate monuments at Capitol.” Associated Press, August 22, 2018. Available at

Fenves, Gregory (2017). Confederate Statues on Campus [transcript]. Retrieved from

McCann, Mac. “Written in Stone: History of racism lives on in UT monuments” Austin Chronicle, May 29, 2015. Available at


Colin Frick & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
October 31, 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 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.

Gaming the System?

CASE STUDY: Digital Ethics and Cheating in Fortnite

Case Study PDF | Additional Case Studies

Since the creation of online multiplayer video games, conniving gamers have lurked in the dark corners of the digital realm, waiting to pounce on unsuspecting players with software and codes designed to give them a competitive advantage. Such cheat codes manipulate glitches or bugs in the game design to create “advantages beyond normal gameplay,” like gaining in-game money or increasing the likelihood of hitting an enemy target. “Massive Multiplayer Online” (MMO) games are a growing category of multiplayer gaming which permits a “large number of players to participate simultaneously over an internet connection” (Hardy, 2009). Fortnite is one of the newest MMOs to take the world by storm, allowing for up to 100 players to play together in a single round, making it one of the most competitive online games in existence. Launched in July 2017, Fortnite has attracted over 125 million players and earns about $300 million every month from in-game purchases. It also creates an ideal environment for hackers and sophisticated cheaters to make an appearance.

Cheating in MMOs creates an uneven playing field for the devoted gamers who just want to enjoy their favorite pastime. Video game companies across the country are attempting to crack down on MMO cheaters by issuing severe real-life consequences. However, in an attempt to create a friendly, cheating-free gaming atmosphere, many organizations are finding themselves involved in legal battles, like in the case between Epic Games (the creators of Fortnite) and Caleb Rogers, a 14-year-old boy. The video game company filed a lawsuit against Rogers after he was caught using cheating software while playing Fortnite: Battle Royale that made it easier for him to aim weapons at oblivious players. Rogers knew what he was doing, as he also created and shared a YouTube video that gave step-by-step instructions on accessing and using this “aimbot” software. While it is not clear whether Epic Games knew of the boy’s age before filing the lawsuit, a spokesperson for the company stated that “Epic is not okay with ongoing cheating or copyright infringement from anyone at any age… we’ll pursue all available options to make sure our games are fun, fair, and competitive for players.” They argued that the YouTube video encouraged others to also download the cheating software, further promoting the Fortnite MMO to be filled with cheating players. In response to the lawsuit, Rogers refused to take down the how-to video and instead proudly “admitted to using the software, live streaming himself cheating” in another post on YouTube (Statt, 2017).

While the company’s intentions to sustain a fair gaming environment might seem justifiable, the 14-year-old’s mother would argue otherwise. Lauren Rogers sent a letter relaying her anger to the U.S. District Court Eastern District of North Carolina. In it she asserted that her son did not develop or distribute the cheating software; he only downloaded it for his own use. She contended that Epic Games, like many other video game companies, forces a vague end-user licensing agreement (EULA) on users that was so complex that Caleb could not possibly agree to because of his status as a minor. Further, there was no parental consent agreement, meaning that she nor any other adult was required to read the terms and conditions. Rogers asserts that regardless of Caleb’s age, the EULA was vague and has probably never been read in its entirety by any gamer. Nick Statt, a writer at The Verge, says that “nearly every piece of technology… carries with it some type of murky agreement regulating the behavior of consumers… We agree to these contracts without reading them or even understanding what types of behavior scale from prohibited to illegal.” Rogers also argues that even if Caleb wasn’t a minor, Epic Games would have difficulties demonstrating that a cheating software could harm the company’s revenue, as it is a free game and its only profits come from purchases made by users within the game. She challenges that the possible $150,000 fine against a 14-year-old is just a way for a major corporation to make money from a minor infraction.

Cheating in an online video game might not be glaringly harmful, but hacking can cause frustration and anger in an environment designed to provide escape for the users from the stressors of reality. In the end, using cheating software exploits the purpose of the video game’s social elements and undermines the artistic intent to entertain. Should video game companies move toward drastic legal action in the persisting battle against MMO cheaters?

Discussion Questions:

  1. What is the ethical problem with cheating in games? Does the meaning of cheating change in digital realms such as that created in Fortnite?
  2. Did Rogers commit one or two ethically problematic actions when he used an aimbot to gain an advantage and then explained his use in a YouTube video? Would your reasoning change if he had only used the aimbot but not helped others use such programs?
  3. How far can companies go in enforcing fairness in their games? What principle would you argue for that governs ethical game companies and the behaviors they allow on their platforms?
  4. If fairness is an important value, what other values might matter in the social worlds created or implied by games? Should game companies also worry about other senses of equality and inclusion beyond fair competition?

Further Information:

Gilbert, Ben. “One crazy statistic shows how incredibly big ‘Fortnite’ has become in less than a year.” Business Insider, June 13, 2018. Available at:

Shafer, Josh. “Video game maker goes after cheaters, including a 14-year-old boy.” The News & Observer, November 27, 2017. Available at:

Statt, Nick. “Epic Games receives scathing legal rebuke from 14-year-old Fortnite cheater’s mom.” The Verge, November 27, 2017. Available at:

Technopedia. “Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOG).” Technopedia. Available at:

Thomsen, Michael. “Cheating: Video Games’ Moral Imperative.” Fanzine, January 8, 2013. Available at:


Alex Purcell
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
November 2, 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 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.

Meet the Research Scholars: Holland Smith

hollandheadshot_nHolland Smith is a senior at the University of Texas at Austin majoring in Political Communication and minoring in Government. Holland’s interests in politics and broadcast journalism are closely related to the issues of media ethics, and she looks forward to exploring the intersection between the two over the course of the semester. As a Media Ethics Initiative Research Scholar, she is excited to analyze challenging and relevant topics and applying her findings to her own media use.

Media Ethics Initiative Research Scholars earn credits and research experience by working with the Media Ethics Initiative to promote reflection on media ethics among students and faculty at the University of Texas at Austin. They gain valuable skills by assisting the organizing and promotion of Media Ethics Initiative events, as well as by researching and writing case studies in media ethics. Interested UT Austin students can sign up for a 1, 2, or 3 credit internship for the fall or spring semester. For more information on the Media Ethics Initiative Research Scholar program, visit here.


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