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The Paradox of Pathos

CASE STUDY: The Ethics of Emotions in Political Communication

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hunterpicDespite the United States being one of the most recognizable democracies in the world, it often trails most other developed nations in voter turnout. According to a study conducted by the Pew Research Center, where countries like Belgium, Sweden, and Demark see upwards of 80% voter turnout, in 2012 the American turnout rate topped out at 58.6% and only barely increased in 2016 to 61% (Ward, 2018). FairVote, a nonpartisan organization which seeks to remedy this problem through electoral reforms, notes that low voter turnout is caused by a variety of factors such as electoral competitiveness, election type, voting laws, and voter demographics. Even among these variables one especially salient feature of low voter turnout is that it is usually attributed to “political disengagement and the belief that voting for one candidate/party or another will do little to alter public policy” (FairVote, 2020). In other words, Americans are increasingly suffering from a lack of voter motivation.

What is an effective way to address this lack of motivation among political constituencies? The Greek thinker Aristotle identified emotional forms of proof (pathos) as one of the central mechanisms for persuasion over two thousand years ago. It is no surprise that throughout history, politicians have always tried to overcome the voter motivation problem through emotional appeals and exciting the electorate through various campaign promises. Since the Donald Trump campaign in 2016 primarily sought to galvanize voters through the stimulation of fear and anger, a new debate surrounding the ethical considerations of emotive political messages has been spurred. From referring to Mexicans as rapists to claiming Muslims hate America, Trump capitalized on a rhetoric of fear and anger which he subsequently promised to fix through strict immigration reform should he be elected (Ortiz & Pickard, 2018). It appeared to have worked: “Trump led an unseen rebellion of working-class voters, most of them white and so disgusted by a stalled status quo that they voted for a candidate promising dramatic change” (Goldmacher et. al., 2016).

Is this use of political rhetoric that evokes intense emotions a good thing? On one hand, there are those like journalist Ron Chandler who argues that Trump’s use of “divisive and isolationist rhetoric” leads to “offensive aggression (aggression that’s not prompted by an actual threat), an unwillingness to compromise, or racism and bigotry” (Chandler, 2020). While it counters the common sense idea that “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me,” there is support for the general notion that messages which cause strong emotional reactions also cause irrational and potentially violent behavior. In fact, a recent study conducted by scholars at the University of Alabama and Chicago School of Law found that “Donald Trump’s election in November of 2016 was associated with a statistically significant surge in reported hate crimes across the United States, even when controlling for alternative explanations… and counties that voted for President Trump by the widest margins in the presidential election also experienced the largest increases in reported hate crimes” (Edwards & Rushin, 2018). As the New York Times reports, these “personal attacks motivated by bias or prejudice reached a 16-year high in 2018 with a significant upswing in violence against Latinos,” a highly targeted group in Trump’s efforts to curb immigration (Hassan, 2019).

On the other hand, researchers Jeff Greenberg and Jamie Arndt argue that fear and anger aren’t always all bad. In their studies surrounding Terror Management Theory (TMT), they discovered that while these strong emotions can result in negative outcomes, fear and anger can also motivate actions such as generosity and a desire to take constructive action (Chandler, 2020). In fact, psychologist Dr. Michal Strahilevitz emphasizes that “voters are driven by emotions, and negative emotions may have the most impact” and Nicholas Valentino, professor of communication studies and political science, has shown in his studies of emotional effects on voting that “many citizens with few resources can be mobilized if they experience strong anger” (Strahilevitz, 2012;Valentino, 2011). Furthermore, though Trump may be an especially salient example as his emotive messaging has perhaps been more direct than we’ve ever seen (he is not one to sugarcoat his opinion), he is certainly not the only politician to have ever used fear and anger to motivate voters. While Trump played on these emotions for his base, so too did Hillary Clinton for her base in response to Trump’s every move. As journalist Molly Ball argues: “The critics who accuse Trump of cheap fear-mongering may be failing to recognize that the fear percolating in society is real, and somewhat justified; politicians who fail to validate it risk falling out of step with the zeitgeist” (Ball, 2016).

Emotive messaging works, and this is why it has always been used within political communication. The recent focus on negative emotions may be the key to solving the nation’s low voter turnout; in this way, it serves the admirable democratic goal of increasing citizen motivation and participation in politics. It is already projected to drive the largest voter turnout in decades for the upcoming 2020 presidential election. The Atlantic reports that “with Donald Trump’s tumultuous presidency stirring such strong emotions among both supporters and opponents… the 2020 contest could produce a massive turnout that is also unprecedentedly diverse” (Ball, 2016). Emotions work to increase participation, but is an increase in voter turnout worth the risk of polarizing the country even further or even another spike in hate-crime related violence? Similarly, is the monotony of non-emotional messages worth the stagnant rates in democratic participation? Is the U.S. truly a democracy if only slightly more than half of the (eligible) citizenry is choosing its leaders? 

Discussion Questions: 

  1. What values and activities are part of an ideal democratic community? What are the central values in conflict in using emotional messages to drive voter turnout?
  2. Can political messages be devoid of emotion? If not, are some emotions more ethically desirable than others?
  3. Does democracy have to be rational? Does rationality inherently entail an absence of emotion?
  4. Is there a creative way to communicate political messages that utilizes both emotion and reason without privileging one over the other to increase voter turnout?

Further Information:

Ball, M. (2016, September 2). “Donald Trump’s Campaign Is Based on Fear.” The Atlantic. Available at: https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/09/donald-trump-and-the-politics-of-fear/498116/

FairVote.org. “Voter Turnout.” FairVote, Available at: www.fairvote.org/voter_turnout#what_affects_voter_turnout_rates

Goldmacher, S., Schreckinger, B., Thrush, G., Vogel, K. P., Isenstadt, A., & White, B. (2016, November 9). “Trump pulls off biggest upset in U.S. history.” Politico. Available at: https://www.politico.com/story/2016/11/election-results-2016-clinton-trump-231070

Hassan, A. (2019, November 12). “Hate-Crime Violence Hits 16-Year High, F.B.I. Reports.” New York Times. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/12/us/hate-crimes-fbi-report.html

Ortiz, Erik, and Terry Pickard. (2015, December 8). “American Mayors Want to Ban Donald Trump From Cities for ‘Message of Hate’.” NBCUniversal News Group. Available at: www.nbcnews.com/politics/2016-election/american-mayors-want-ban-donald-trump-cities-message-hate-n476566

Strahilevitz, M. A. (2012, October 28). “Which Emotions Have the Most Impact on Voters?” Psychology Today. Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/your-money-and-your-heart/201210/which-emotions-have-the-most-impact-voters

Valentino, N. (2011, June 8). “Anger motivates people to vote, study shows.” Available at: https://phys.org/news/2011-06-anger-people-vote.html

Ward, Alex. (2018, November 6). “Why US Voter Turnout Lags behind Other Advanced Democracies.” Vox. Available at: www.vox.com/2018/11/6/18069360/midterm-election-voter-turnout-polls-2018-democracy

Authors:

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

July 24, 2020

Image: Andre Hunter on Unsplash


This case study was produced by the Media Ethics Initiative and the Project on Ethics in Political Communication. It remains the intellectual property of these two organizations. It is supported by funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. This case can be used in unmodified PDF form for classroom or educational uses. For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Center for Media Engagement.

 

Objectivity in Journalism

CASE STUDY: Is Objectivity in Journalism an Ethical Requirement or Impediment?

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objpicture

Fred Kearney / Unsplash / Modified

Journalists have long been thought of as simple reporters of reality – they go out into the world, see what is happening, and straightforwardly relay that information to the public. Stephen J. A. Ward, a media ethicist and founding director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, refers to this traditional conception of journalism as “the professional objective model” where journalists are expected to “provide unvarnished facts in a very neutral manner” (Alter, 2019). However, since popularity in partisan news outlets and opinion-based op-eds or talk shows has risen dramatically in the last several decades, the traditional view of journalism as only a neutral transfer of facts has recently come under scrutiny. While some welcome a new understanding of journalism, one which allows for the inclusion of a journalist’s personal voice, others believe eschewing the ideals of objectivity and neutrality is dangerous.

 

Despite assumptions that the professional objective model has always been the standard of journalism, Matthew Pressman, an assistant professor of journalism at Seton Hall University and the author of On Press: The Liberal Values That Shaped the News, provides a history of the news media which reveals this assumption to be far from true. He explains that at their inception, American newspapers were actually “proudly partisan,” but after a long series of mergers and closings in the 1920s, surviving paper companies had to change this approach in favor of appealing to a wider audience. Because “overt partisanship in the news pages would alienate large parts of the target audience,” journalists soon adopted neutral voices in their reporting so they could sell more papers and keep their businesses open (Pressman, 2019).

Though the country is not facing the same economic hardships as it was back then, the same argument can be made today that appealing to a broader audience is ultimately desirable – not just to keep a news company afloat, but to provide a space where broad sections of the public can receive the exact same information and use it to form their own interpretation of events. Even if it hasn’t been the standard forever, those who hold the professional objective model in high regard nonetheless believe it is one we should keep because “the injection of opinion and insinuation deprives viewers and readers of a neutral set of facts upon which to make their own decisions and opinions” (Solomon, 2018). In other words, for a journalist to include their own voice is to risk exerting influence over their audience, whereas the publication of “only facts” allows for the consumers to make judgements for themselves, not be told what to think by a reporter. As journalist George Reedy used to tell his students before his passing: “You don’t use a bullhorn filled with opinion and emotion when a flashlight’s illumination of facts will do” (Solomon, 2018).

Given recent advancements in technology, these points may be even more consequential today than they were before the 1920s. As most Americans now own a smart device, have access to news coverage 24/7, and even have the ability to communicate with strangers online, supplying unbiased coverage could be the best way to encourage dialogue among diverse people. In fact, the casual acceptance of non-objective journalism may already be negatively affecting civil discourse and citizen unity, evidenced by the proliferation of echo chambers on social media. As people engage in confirmation bias, seeking out comforting partisan news pages on sites like Facebook, they only see one-sided stories and engage only with members of that community who already share the same opinions. Thus, rather than seeking out neutral stories and connecting with people unlike themselves, they become entrenched in their beliefs and estranged from others. Perhaps if biased journalism didn’t exist, neither would such technology-fueled polarization.

In contrast, there are those who believe strict objectivity should not be a priority in journalism. On a philosophical level, it has been argued that neutrality or objectivity in judgment doesn’t actually exist and therefore is an impossible standard to meet. Regardless of their profession, reporters are still human beings who have unique experiences and stakes in political processes. To be held to a level of superhuman objectivity is unfair for anyone, but perhaps even more concerning for minority journalists reporting on issues that affect them directly. As trans reporter Lewis Wallace has argued: “I can’t be neutral or centrist in a debate over my own humanity” (Li, 2020). Even when news appears to be objective, freelance writer Jack Mirkinson urges consumers to “look at the questions people ask [or] the stories people choose to write. All of these things are inherently suffused with opinion and political judgment” even if the journalist doesn’t outright put forth their beliefs (Li, 2020).

Moreover, the professional objective model is said to be problematic on a practical level as well. The expectation to only report facts essentially reduces a journalist to a stenographer and may even deprive the audience of additional knowledge they need to make an informed judgement (Pressman, 2019). Even professional practices concerning opinions and accounts runs into trouble when it reaches for objectivity because it can “give false equivalence to ideas that do not deserve equal amounts of time” (Driftwood, 2016). As Christopher Meyers notes:

Truthful journalism establishes the context that makes accurate facts meaningful by discerningly providing multiple perspectives and by recognizing that a strict adherence to balance – in the sense of giving equal weight and credence to all sides on a contentious issue – can mislead more than inform. See, for example, coverage of climate change in which equal space is given to deniers (Meyers, 2020).

Allegra Hobbs, a staff writer for Study Hall, further argues that the question of what deserves to be covered in journalism can be exacerbated by unequal power dynamics, saying: “There is no such thing as journalistic objectivity, and attempts to maintain it often result in reporting that is overly generous to the powerful” (Li, 2020). In this sense, to simply report what powerful people say and do, without providing context or analysis, only “lets the public be imposed on by the charlatan with the most brazen front” (Pressman, 2019). If those who advocate for the professional objective model are correct that the public is at risk of influence when reading reporter opinions, why wouldn’t they be equally at risk of influence by the words of those being reported on?

Overall, perhaps the ethical debate surrounding objectivity in journalism is impossible to solve because, in its current form, it is unclear and misguided. Kamrin Baker, editor in chief of The Gateway, argues that the focus should not be on neutrality, but on transparency, saying: “As long as journalists are transparent about their experience when disseminating information, there should be no shame in being equal parts human and Fourth Estate” (Li, 2020). On a similar note, in his book Ethical Journalism in a Populist Age: The Democratically Engaged Journalist, Ward suggests that objectivity itself is not the problem, but where it is expected to be positioned, asserting: “Journalists are advocates for dialogic democracy… [they] are in the business of advocating for a certain type of society. How are we objective then? We’re objective not in our goals; we’re objective in our methodology” (Alter, 2019). In the end, what is clear is that as communication technologies become more advanced, disinformation spreads, and polarization increases in the United States, the truth of our very reality will become more contested. As the very idea of what a fact is comes into question, American journalists will continue to face scrutiny for what (some of) the public deems unobjective, biased reporting. 

Discussion Questions: 

  1. What are the central values in tension when debating the merit of journalism’s professional objective model?
  2. How might you approach the concern of neutrality when covering stories on topics in which certain simple or complex facts are in dispute by different parties (such as the existence of climate change)?
  3. Do you agree or disagree that objectivity is possible to achieve? If not, do you see any value in attempting it anyway? What are the risks of maintaining an ideal of objectivity, and what are the risks of giving it up?
  4. Freelance culture writer Rebecca Long has said: “If ‘being neutral’ means obscuring facts to make hard truths more palatable for readers, it isn’t worth it to me” (Li, 2020). What is your reaction to this quote? How does “hard truth” compare to “the truth”? 

Further Information:

Alter, Isaac. (2019, April 2). Populist Times and the Perils of ‘Neutral’ Journalism: A Q&A with Media Ethicist Stephen J. A. Ward. Center for Journalism Ethics. Available at: https://ethics.journalism.wisc.edu/2018/11/29/populist-times-and-the-perils-of-neutral-journalism-a-qa-with-media-ethicist-stephen-j-a-ward/

Driftwood Staff. (2016, August 17). Journalism Is Not, Should Not Be Neutral. Driftwood. Available at: https://unodriftwood.com/628/opinion/journalism-will-not-should-not-be-neutral/

Li, Sara. (2020, March 6). These Young Journalists Say Neutrality Isn’t an Option for Them. Teen Vogue. Available at: www.teenvogue.com/story/objectivity-neutrality-not-option-some-journalists

Meyers, Christopher. (2020). Partisan News, the Myth of Objectivity, and the Standards of Responsible Journalism. Journal of Media Ethics, 1-15.

Pressman, M. (2019, February 25). Journalistic Objectivity: Origin, Meaning and Why It Matters. Time. Available at: https://time.com/5443351/journalism-objectivity-history/

Solomon, J. (2018, November 23). The Greatest Threat to American Journalism: The Loss of Neutral Reporting. The Hill. Available at: https://thehill.com/opinion/white-house/417921-the-greatest-threat-to-american-journalism-the-loss-of-neutral-reporting

Authors:

Kat Williams  & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
July 24, 2020

www.mediaengagement.org


This case study is supported by funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the Center for Media Engagement. They can be used in unmodified PDF form for classroom or educational settings. For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Center for Media Engagement.

Ghosting the People?

CASE STUDY: The Ethics of Political Speechwriting

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Political speechwriters and teachers have existed since ancient Roman and Greek leaders sought the help of skilled sophists to help them publicly relay their ideas in an accessible yet eloquent manner. The American political system naturally replicated the idea with many presidents hiring an adept writer to serve as their speechwriting advisor – someone who could help mold their rhetoric to reach the American people far and wide. While these “ghostwriters” were generally kept discreetly shrouded from the public eye, recent decades have seen a rise in their publicity through autobiographies and journalistic exposés.

The number of public presidential addresses has increased dramatically with every term, resulting in a more pressing need for speechwriting assistance over the last few decades. Presidential addresses were relatively rare until the rise of electronic media. Once the majority of American homes could tune in to political discourse with their radios or television sets, the demand for the president’s voice escalated. In his book Ghostwriting and the Ethics of Authority, John Knapp points out that “Abraham Lincoln gave an average of 16 speeches per year as president; Harry Truman averaged 88, Bill Clinton 550, [and] Obama gave 411 in his first year in office” (Knapp, 2016). It has become increasingly unrealistic for presidents to author every one of their hundreds of political speeches throughout their presidencies in addition to attending to their primary duties as president. When Obama’s speechwriter Jon Favreau asked Press Secretary Robert Gibbs why the president needed help speechwriting when he was already a published author, Gibbs replied, “If there were 48 hours in a day, we wouldn’t need a speechwriter” (Knapp, 2016). Yet, this mechanism of efficiency opens up a number of ethical challenges.

It is true that a writing assistant who can take the president’s ideas and quickly write up an articulate speech is pragmatic, and the general public is growing increasingly aware that modern presidents are hardly ever the sole visionaries of their speeches. But concerns have been voiced about the authenticity of messages authored by a person not talking the talk. The one uttering the message is generally taken to be the source of its ideas and what it advocates; there is a relationship of authenticity between that message and that evident source of the message. Thus, some critics claim that most presidential speeches are deceiving and unethical if the speechwriter remains anonymous and unrecognized by the public. Many politicians throughout American history have insisted that their speechwriters remain anonymous so as not to minimize the message’s authority as coming from the president. In fact, Lyndon B. Johnson apparently told his speechwriter to have “a ‘passion for anonymity’” (Schlesinger, 2008). But some say that this nameless method “represents a kind of audience deception akin to plagiarism” (Bormann, 1984). If the message is not attributed to its rightful author, how trustworthy can it be? Indeed, during the 2003 presidential campaign, Congressman Dennis Kucinich publicly criticized some of the candidates with known speechwriters, exclaiming: “If a president has a ghostwriter, who’s the president” (Brandt, 2007)? Unlike an actor playing a part written by a screenwriter, many audience members assume that the president is the source of the statements they are asserting, and that the president believes these arguments and claims to be aligned with or coming from their beliefs and values.

Beyond the authenticity concerns, other controversies can quickly arise when someone is given the authority to communicate to large audiences under a politician’s name. Thus, some critics have even gone as far as to claim that a political speechwriter could potentially use their role to exercise influence, especially if the politician is unlikely to read through the draft thoroughly. While this may seem far-fetched, it isn’t unheard of. For example, in 1992 when U.S. Congressman Ron Paul was briefly out of the office, one of his staff ghostwriters wrote blatantly racist comments in the politician’s newsletter. The only publicly named author of the newsletter, however, was Paul himself.

Digital media has further complicated the ethics of speechwriting, as social media communication is becoming a standard for presidential messaging. Barack Obama was the first sitting president with a Twitter account and there is little doubt that this trend will continue beyond the often-tweeting President Trump. With the significance of media authenticity and demand for real-time responsiveness, challenges have already arisen with the question of using ghostwriters on social media – especially when digital platforms may be more easily accessible and vulnerable to abuse than Ron Raul’s 1992 paper newsletters.

Despite the growing ethical questions about presidential speechwriting and ghostwriting, many people still believe that the process can be trustworthy, especially if done using a certain level of transparency. Psychologist David Gruder argues that speechwriting is completely moral when intent and responsibility are brought into the conversation. He cites the relationship between President John F. Kennedy and his speechwriter, Ted Sorenson, as one that built a strong model for ethical speechwriting. Kennedy was known for publicly acknowledging and embracing the fact that Sorenson had a heavy hand in writing Kennedy’s most famous presidential speeches. Not only was he clearly transparent about Sorenson’s role, but he also took equal responsibility for the message and made sure that he and Sorenson agreed on the message’s intent and meaning. Gruder states that “Kennedy appears… to have spoken what was authentically true for him even when the perspectives and the words he used to express them were written by Sorenson” (Conner, 2014).

Nevertheless, even in the most virtuous of political relationships, ethical concerns may arise. For example, like Kennedy, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was also one of the many presidents who had a trusted speechwriting team: Raymond Moley, Samuel Rosenman, and Louis McHenry Howe. The trio would often compete in good fun with each other to be the one whose speech draft made it to the president’s podium. In fact, for Roosevelt’s Inaugural Address, Moley typed out a speech while Roosevelt re-wrote it in his own handwriting so the other writers wouldn’t become jealous that Moley’s draft was chosen. However, unbeknownst to Moley until years later, Roosevelt credited himself as the sole author of the speech and several publications and biographies afterward did the same. Moley angrily challenged the accreditation in his own memoir, stating that the speech was, in fact, written mostly by himself (Knapp, 2016).

In the end, whether it be a full speech or text on a politician’s social media account, political ghostwriters are in more demand than ever. Many argue that speechwriters only truly exist to take a bit of labor off their hands and make sure the president can effectively communicate their sentiments in a way that is easily digestible by the public. Especially with an audience as massive as the entire country, it’s crucial that the message be expressed in the way it was intended. While this is all fine in theory, others contend that the proliferation of ghostwriters pose a number of ethical problems for the nation, including unaccountability for anonymously written speeches or the potential to negatively influence a figure of authority’s rhetoric. Given the already increasing number of speeches expected from presidents combined with new challenges raised by the normalization of social media, political speechwriters are unlikely to go away any time soon. Thus, it is important for us to consider how we might reconcile these dilemmas so that the American people can receive messages from their representatives as authentically as possible without said representatives using up all of their time to craft messages instead of running the country.

Discussion Questions: 

  1.  Who is responsible for a message when it is ghostwritten – the writer who writes it, the speaker who speaks it, or both?
  2. What role does a source play in evaluating a message? Does ghostwriting speeches inhibit this role in regard to political messages?
  3. What ethical values come into conflict if a speechwriter is requested to write a speech that goes against their own opinions or beliefs?
  4. Does authenticity matter in modern political communication? Can a speech be truly authentic if it isn’t written by the one speaking it?
  5. What ethical values are in tension if a political ghostwriter later exposes their role and wants to claim credit for a speech?

Further Information:

Brandt, Deborah. 2007, July 1. “‘Who’s the President?’: Ghostwriting and Shifting Values in Literacy.” College English, 69, 6: 549-571.

Bormann, Ernest. 2009, June 5. “Ethics of ghostwritten speeches.” Quarterly Journal of Speech, 47, 3: 262-267.

Conner, Cheryl. 2014, March 13. “Is Ghostwriting Ethical?” Forbes. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/cherylsnappconner/2014/03/13/is-ghostwriting-ethical/

Guthmann, Andrea. 2019, October 14. “Powerful Writing: Presidential Speechwriters Discuss Their Craft.” WTTW. Available at: https://news.wttw.com/2019/10/14/powerful-writing-presidential-speechwriters-discuss-their-craft

Kjeldsen, Jens E., Kiewe, Amos, Lund, Marie, and Barnholdt Hansen, Jette. 2019, March 15. “The Ethics of Speechwriting.” Speechwriting in Theory and Practice. Available at: https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-030-03685-0_11

Knapp, John C., and Hulbert, Azalea M. 2016. Ghostwriting and The Ethics of Authenticity. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Schlesinger, Robert. 2008. White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Authors:

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

July 13, 2020


This case study was produced by the Media Ethics Initiative and the Project on Ethics in Political Communication. It remains the intellectual property of these two organizations. It is supported by funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. This case can be used in unmodified PDF form for classroom or educational uses. For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Center for Media Engagement.

 

Whose Image is It to Use?

CASE STUDY: The Ethics of Persuasive Pictures in Political Advocacy

Case Study PDF  | Additional Case Studies


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Stock Image: PickPik

A number of years ago, a criminal justice reform organization, which has since closed, called The Justice Project took out a full-page ad in a publication aimed at policymakers. The ad promoted pending legislation making it harder to send people to death row. The ad highlighted the number of wrongful convictions, and featured a photo of a young, white man with his head in his hands. The point of the ad was to say “anyone can be wrongfully sentenced to death – this could be you or someone you know.” The young man in the photo was not on death row, or even in jail – it was a stock photo purchased from an image service.

When the ad ran, nearly 100 people had been wrongfully sentenced to death since 1973, a number that has now reached more than 160 – about 10% of everyone sent to death row (Death Penalty Information Center, 2020). Anyone can be arrested, sent to jail, or even sentenced to death for a crime she or he did not commit – even people in stock photos.

Advocates understand the power of images. They carefully select what they judge is the right image, to make the right point, to the right audience, at the right time. Images can capture entire stories. They can boil complicated ideas into a single frame. Some images become iconic and are credited with changing the course of policy – or even history. Dorothea Lange showed Americans the reality of the Great Depression, photographs have helped spark advancements in civil rights, images of a drowned child drew international attention to refugees from the conflict in Syria, and a crying child became the face of US immigration policy. Advocates hope the image they choose impacts campaigns or policy, as the “Willie Horton” ad did in the 1988 presidential campaign. (Criss, 2018). These images, and many others, have helped draw public attention to critical issues and have helped spark change. They are also full of ethical challenges. One challenge is the choice of whose picture to use.

As far back as Aristotle persuaders have known the importance of identifying with an audience. People are more likely to support legislation or policy change if they think that could happen to them, their family, or someone they know. We’ve all heard people say “that could have been me” to explain why they put on a seatbelt, or “my mother was a victim” to support greater funding for breast cancer research.

Smart strategic advocates find connections between their issues and those with power to create change. They choose images that resonate with decision makers. For a policy maker to say “that could have been me” there has to be some connection between the picture and the policy maker. Images used by advocates need to look like policymakers, or those about whom the policymakers care.

One important group of policy makers is the U.S. Congress. The U.S. House and Senate create national policy and help drive the national policy agenda. Advocates know a lot about members of Congress and how to connect with them. Members of the House and Senate, on average, are whiter, older, wealthier, better educated, and more likely to be male than the rest of the population (Congressional Research Service, United States Census).

This creates a challenge for advocates. On one hand, an advocate wants to create a visual connection between their cause and those with power. On the other hand, the advocate wants to be honest and representative of the facts and trends concerning certain issues, and advocates certainly do not want their campaign to make other problems worse. Many of those on whose behalf advocates work don’t look like most policymakers. Most people sentenced to death (like most Americans) are not older, wealthy holders of advanced degrees. Should advocates use a stock image depicting a white male, potentially like many of the sons of many of the members of Congress, or an image of a personal of color, in many ways a truer face of those most harmed by flaws in the penal system?

The question of image gets trickier on other issues such as immigration. Many who were brought to the United States as children, and whose parents did not have appropriate documentation, are a diverse group from various countries and regions. In pushing campaigns about such a diverse group, advocates may strategically look for images of people who could be in the same school or neighborhood of the children of policymakers – images of people who look like what policymakers think of as “typical” Americans. No doubt many of these young people fit that model – but many likely do not.

Using images of what policymakers may think of as “good” or “deserving” people may advance a policy, and at the same time reinforce racist and sexist stereotypes. The policy win may come at the cost of perpetuating structures that led to the problematic policy in the first place. Such images may be of people who the policy change will impact – they are ‘true’ or accurate in that sense – but in showing only part of the truth the images may have other negative consequences. On the other hand, showing a wider array of images may make the policy more difficult to achieve and may reinforce other negative stereotypes that “all those people look like that.”

Showing more typical victims of a policy, illness, or disaster may fail to fully connect with policymakers. If they do connect, the images may reinforce negative stereotypes or the belief that one class or group needs to constantly “rescue” others (sometimes called the White Savior Complex (Quartz, 2020). Showing less typical victims (or people not even impacted at all, as was the case at the start of this case study) may be deceitful or reinforce that people who look like policymakers deserve help, while others may not. The same is true for issues such as drug addiction, mental illness, or any number of other topics that “could happen to anyone.”

And of course advocates have a limited space. Ads are small and to be effective can only contain a limited amount of information. Another layer of complexity is the impact on the person in the ad itself. A person depicted in some stock photo – or perhaps in an actual mug shot—affected both by the policy and the advertisement might not want to be forever defined by that moment or image, always being “that guy or girl in the picture.” On the other hand someone in a stock photo, who may be paid for the use of their image regardless of what it is used for, may be mistaken for a death row inmate (or whatever the ad is about) in future interactions.

The ethical choices involved in employing powerful images in advocacy campaign are serious and deserve reflection, whether they involve individuals closely connected to the topic of the campaign or simply models posing in some previous photo shoot. If a picture is worth a thousand words, how are political campaign advocates to best direct the effects of such campaigns while respecting those pictured in their persuasive materials? 

Discussion Questions: 

  1. What are the ethical challenges or problems in using a stock photo in an advocacy campaign? What problems arise if one uses an image of someone actually involved in the topic of the campaign?
  2. Should advocates choose pictures that most represent those on whose behalf they are advocating, or pictures most likely to persuade policymakers?
  3. If accuracy of a representative image trades off with its effectiveness in reaching a target audience, what value should an advocate prioritize? How might they go about this prioritization in practice?
  4. If advocates want policymakers to help a group, how do they choose pictures that show the group as not helpless, even though they may need help?

Further Information:

Congressional Research Service. (June 1, 2020) “Membership of the 116th Congress: A Profile.” Available at: https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R45583.pdf

Criss, Doug. (November 1, 2018) “This is the 30-year old Willie Horton ad everybody is talking about.” CNN. Available at https://www.cnn.com/2018/11/01/politics/willie-horton-ad-1988-explainer-trnd/index.html (Accessed June 25, 2020).

Death Penalty Information Center (accessed June 19, 2020). “Innocence.” Available at https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/policy-issues/innocence

“Recent Death Sentences by Name, Race, County, and Year.” Available at https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/facts-and-research/sentencing-data/2019-death-sentences-by-name-race-county-and-year (Accessed June 25,2020).

Quartz (accessed June 19, 2020). “White Savior Complex.” Available at https://qz.com/re/white-savior-complex/

United States Census (Accessed June 19, 2020). Available at https://www.census.gov/

Authors:

Peter Loge & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Project on Ethics in Political Communication / Center for Media Engagement
George Washington University / University of Texas at Austin

July 9, 2020


This case study was produced by the Media Ethics Initiative and the Project on Ethics in Political Communication. It remains the intellectual property of these two organizations. It is supported by funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. This case can be used in unmodified PDF form for classroom or educational uses. For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Center for Media Engagement.

 

Doxing in the Name of Public Health

CASE STUDY: The Ethics of Shaming Risky Behaviors in the Time of COVID-19

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michele-feola-BFsBJVProI0-unsplashAs protective measures such as social distancing and self-quarantine have increasingly been encouraged, Americans across the nation have begun to adjust to the reality of the novel coronavirus. Especially with spring break around the corner, it became a common priority for everyone to avoid nonessential travel, particularly international trips. However, not everyone took this advice to heart. News stories regarding the coronavirus outbreak highlighted college students from the University of Texas at Austin who ignored these exact precautions and visited Cabo San Lucas for the week-long holiday. Upon returning from Mexico, 49 out of the 211 students tested positive for COVID-19 as of April 3 (Proctor, 2020). The public reacted with concern and disappointment towards these spring breakers since these students “ignored the recommendations of the City of both Austin and UT and actively chose to travel to another country to party,” thus making the nearby neighborhood, West Campus, a “hotspot for COVID-19” (Plein, 2020). New York Times journalists Montgomery and Hernandez add that “many of them appeared to be under the mistaken impression that young people are not as likely to get the coronavirus” (Montgomery & Hernandez, 2020).

Firefox_Screenshot_2020-06-25T18-54-37.400Z_cr_crAs information spread about the confirmed cases resulting from disobeying stay-at-home guidelines, public outcry morphed into online shaming of the spring breakers, and the hashtag #Cabo44 quickly began trending. Posts via Twitter and Instagram, such as “Hi here is a thread of why you aren’t pissed enough at Cabo44 using math and science,” “2020 sucked A-S-S, then Texas Theta and their selfish members decided to exist,” and “Endangering people’s lives is not baddie behavior!!!,” all of which aimed at shaming the travelling students, ran rampant throughout the blogosphere (Smothers, 2020). This “flaming” (i.e. the online practice of posting insults, typically including profanity) quickly transformed into acts of “doxing” (also referred to as “doxxing”), or publicly identifying the spring breakers involved so as to generate negative attention, as fellow Longhorns themselves demanded accountability. Twitter users quickly uncovered their identities and affiliate organizations, connecting their vacationing hashtags and locations to the controversy. This information was used to highlight inequitable differences between the “Cabo 44” and others on campus. As one Longhorn pointed out, while low-income students of color have no choice but to self-quarantine, the spring breakers feel more entitled to take risks because they are “more well-connected, more likely to be insured, have more disposable income, [and are] more likely to be supported by their parents” (Smothers, 2020). With the identities of the vacationers thus revealed, an article in the University of Texas’s official newspaper, The Daily Texan, called for action to be taken against the offending students by the university, saying: “By definition, they participated in university-defined misconduct and have likely contributed to the exponential growth and spread of COVID-19” (Plein, 2020).

In an attempt to build a movement to spread awareness of the health risk on campus and to hold the “Cabo 44” accountable, doxing intensified across Instagram and Twitter. However, those being doxed eventually fought back and the doxers were soon met with criticism. Perhaps the largest form of pushback against the doxing and public shaming was the response that some students were being falsely identified and accused. For example, when a sorority member of Kappa Alpha Theta published an Instagram photo with the location tag of “Cabo San Lucas,” she was immediately assumed to be one of the Cabo 44. Even though the photo could have been an old one, her comments were quickly filled with harsh criticism. Like many instances of doxing, worries about false identifications are applicable; are all members of a certain sorority or group culpable for the lack of judgment of some members? Additionally, others may worry about the appropriateness of the punishment—shame and internet criticism that follows one’s name around in search results for years—for badly thought-out actions that might not have violated any law. Nonetheless, criticism of those accused of being part of the Cabo excursion spawned more debate and criticism, with names being named and shamed, along with threats of legal action by the students being targeted as part of the Cabo trip.

The Cabo 44 incident highlighted the power of the internet to bring an alleged wrong to the attention of wide swaths of the public. Beyond simply noting the action of travelling during a pandemic, the tactic of doxing attached consequences to the accusation. By being named as one acting irresponsibly in a moment of public health crisis, the students involved potentially suffered emotional harm and reputational damage; many of the names and accusations will still be retrievable years after the pandemic has passed, thanks to the memory of internet search engines. The targeted students likened this large-scale internet assault on their reputations to cyberbullying, whereas their critics saw it as the sort of public reaction to the rights and wrongs of others that the internet—and the public sphere—is famous for in recent years. And if criticism can’t have any harm or edge to it, they might maintain, what’s the use in guaranteeing public spaces of critique and debate? The targets saw an invasion of their normally private lives, whereas critics saw a chance to chastise those acting irresponsibly in public and to prevent future such actions in a time of pandemic by others observing this controversy.

Regardless of which side one falls on, it is clear that the internet’s capacity for public shaming and activism will continue to find new and controversial ways of surfacing in the face of public health emergencies. With the incredible media pressure on “flattening the curve” and of each person effectively responding to the COVID-19 outbreak, it is understandable that many would view those that break recommended precautions negatively; it is also reasonable that many might want to voice these concerns in an effort to punish transgressions or to prevent future problems. These reactions are understandable, since these risky behaviors threaten more than just those taking the risk. Ethically speaking, however, the question remains: how far can online reactions go in punishing or shaming those violating travel guidelines and other COVID-19 measures?

Discussion Questions: 

  1. What are the ethical issues with doxing in general? Do these ethical concerns change when it is doxing of individuals allegedly threatening public health?
  2. What values are in conflict in the controversy over doxing those that may have acted unsafely during the COVID-19 pandemic?
  3. What foundation does doxing set for others that break the stay-at-home orders to gather in public places, such as parks? Should everyone who violates public safety orders be exposed through online shaming?
  4. What are the ethical limits to doxing in the name of public safety, especially in the COVID-19 pandemic? In general, what differentiates doxing from online bullying?

Further Information:

Montgomery, D., & Fernandez, M. (2020, April 1). 44 Texas Students Have Coronavirus After Spring Break Trip. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/01/us/coronavirus-texas-austin-spring-break-cabo.html

Plein, C. (2020, April 6). The Cabo 211 should be held responsible for their actions. Available at: https://thedailytexan.com/2020/04/06/the-cabo-211-should-be-held-responsible-for-their-actions

Proctor, C. (2020, April 4). Hundreds of UT-Austin students went to Cabo San Lucas for spring break. Nearly 50 have coronavirus. Available at: https://www.texastribune.org/2020/04/03/49-ut-austin-cabo-san-lucas-spring-breakers-tests-positive-coronavirus/

Smothers, H. (2020, April 13). Spring Breakers Viciously Defend Themselves Online After COVID-19 Outbreak. Available at: https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/wxe3y9/texas-spring-breakers-defend-themselves-covid-19-outbreak

Authors:

Sophia Park, Kat Williams, & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
July 2, 2020

Images: Michele Feola via Unsplash / Twitter Screen Capture


This case study is supported by funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the Center for Media Engagement. They can be used in unmodified PDF form for classroom or educational settings. For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Center for Media Engagement.

Fighting (Online) Fire with Fire?

CASE STUDY: The Complex Ethics of Online Harassment and Feminist Counterspeech 

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sydney-sims-fZ2hMpHIrbI-unsplash
Sydney SimsUnsplash

In online spaces where hostile interaction is common, women often bear the brunt of malicious harassment which “involves more severe experiences, such as being the target of physical threats, harassment over a sustained period of time, stalking, and sexual harassment” (Duggan, 2014). The Pew Research Center conducted a survey on sex-based negative interactions in online dating spaces which revealed that “57% of female online dating users ages 18 to 34 say someone has sent them a sexually explicit message or image they did not ask for” compared to the 28% reported by their male counterparts (Anderson & Vogels, 2020). Additionally, female users in this age range are roughly twice as likely than male users to report that someone has called them an offensive name (44% vs. 23%) or threatened to physically harm them (19% vs. 9%) on dating sites or apps (Anderson & Vogels, 2020).

Legal measures are often ineffective against such bullying or verbal harassment; if it even falls under a criminal statute, authorities are often reluctant to pursue cases against anonymous or semi-anonymous individuals residing in some far corner of the internet. Rather than seeking legal interventions to remedy such misogynistic bullying, some feminists have resorted to counterspeech, which relies on “the idea that ‘bad speech’ can be effectively cured with more speech” (Stroud & Cox, 2018, p. 294). Counterspeech, however, can take many forms, and like any use of speech, carries with it benefits and drawbacks. The different tactics of Anna Gensler and the organization “TrollBusters” illustrate how counterspeech can tackle misogynistic rhetoric online, ranging from online dating culture to the harassment of female journalists.

ag pic

Anna Gensler / Instagram Screenshot / Modified

When Maryland-based artist Anna Gensler joined the popular dating app Tinder, she was quickly met with offensive and misogynistic messages, such as “Bet your tight” and “If I was a watermelon, would you spit or swallow my seeds?” (Hess, 2014). Wanting to teach these men a lesson that “objectification is a two-way street,” she decided to respond to their harassment with her own take on feminist counterspeech (Richards and Calvert, 2000, p. 554). On her portfolio website, as well as on her Instagram page, Gensler shares her method of “objectifying men who objectify women in 3 easy steps: (1) Man sends crude line via Tinder. (2) Draw him naked. (3) Send portrait to lucky man; Enjoy results” (Gensler, 2019). Her drawings, accompanied by the man’s first name and sometimes his profile picture, are then paired with the pick-up lines used by the culprits and published on her website and Instagram account as part of her “Granniepants” project. In an interview with Slate, Gensler claimed that the drawings are all “based off of these guys’ profile pictures… but from there I tried to make them look a little chubbier or scrawnier or just not particularly well-endowed” (Hess, 2014). Despite the positive attention from women who have encountered similar harassment on dating apps, the men depicted in Gensler’s drawings did not appreciate her artistic counterspeech. On her blog, Gensler notes that she’s received death threats from some of these men, but “more than anything, [she’s] afraid because the police just don’t seem to care” (Gensler, 2014). In a world where authorities don’t care much about death threats, let alone internet objectification, Gensler’s supporters see her tactics as an effective way that women can strike back at online harassers—it publically shames them because of misogynist behaviors and serves as a warning to others as to how they ought to behave.

On one hand, Gensler’s use of counterspeech may be viewed as a way to give harassers a taste of their own medicine. However, because her drawings target specific individuals and may contain identifiable details beyond their first names, ethical concerns might be raised about the similarities of this response to doxxing or even revenge porn, since only “a little information may be enough to find this specific person in the age of image search or online mobs acting as sleuths” (Stroud & Cox, 2018). Like the use of nude images in revenge or nonconsensual pornography (or even in deepfake or fake image editing), none of these subjects gave their consent to be depicted as nude in images connected with their names, ages, and online activities. Furthermore, to draw particular body shapes and sizes (e.g. “scrawny” or “chubby”) with the intent to embarrass or shame these men perpetuates harmful ideas about body image which ultimately hurts people of any gender. On the other hand, Gensler’s form of counterspeech may also be viewed as unjust if one believes all human agents, even misogynists, are intrinsically valuable and deserving of respect. Objectifying women on Tinder is wrong and disrespectful, the argument might go, and so is objectifying male perpetrators. Others could argue that objectifying those who objectify doesn’t violate any sort of dignity they are due, but it simply is ineffective—it would probably only increase the hate for women that the targeted individuals would feel.

Given the concerns raised by Gensler’s method to feminist counterspeech, Michelle Ferrier took another approach to the harassment of women with the founding of Troll-Busters.com, an online community which seeks to undo the psychological harm women face in online spaces. The website describes its purpose as a “just-in-time rescue service for women writers and journalists,” using “positive messaging and education to create a hedge of protection around targets in online spaces like Twitter” (Hare, 2016). Instead of responding directly to misogynists or seeking individual revenge, TrollBusters posts “inspirational quotes, safety tips for dealing with harassment, and general words of encouragement to remind women in the public eye who speak their minds that they shouldn’t be ashamed and they’re not alone” (Kabas, 2016). Ferrier’s organization has particularly sought to help female journalists; TrollBusters supports targeted women not only by providing a “counter narrative to drown out hateful trolling” but also by helping them rebuild their digital brand (Sillesen, 2015). Overall, the work of TrollBusters aims to support the target of abuse in a public way, and to show observing individuals that there are supporters when one is under attack online. Trollbusters’s tactics emphasize the path of showing social support in online communities of women. Thus, the organization has proven that just as online harassers can gain momentum, so too can feminist counterspeech create a movement to support victims. While these women may certainly appreciate the support, questions might be raised about how much “protection” TrollBusters can genuinely provide—do trolls and misogynists really care about supportive messages aimed at their targets? Some skeptics might argue that Trollbusters’ approach is too limited, and that positive messages and education are unlikely to bring comfort to women like Gensler who receive daily death threats from online misogynists and little help from authorities.

As Anna Gensler and TrollBusters work to combat online misogyny, their different counterspeech tactics serve as guidance for others to follow. In the case of Gensler’s art, she publicly exposes her harassers, inviting the public to make judgements of them. Perhaps this attention can serve as a deterrent for other male users of online dating sites and apps who may consider sending crude messages to women. However, there remains problematic ethical implications for the depicted men and safety concerns for women who uses this form of counterspeech in response. Conversely, the work of TrollBusters embodies a more constructive spirit in its social-support based counterspeech methods. While their purpose aims to undo harm and build a positive online reputation for the targeted victims of the online harassment, it is difficult to assess guaranteed success against the “mob” force of online trolls. One thing is certain: misogynistic harassment will continue to be a problem for women online. In our own acts of speech responding to this online misogyny, it is imperative for us to continually consider whether the most effective ways to shame and silence misogynists are also the most ethical ways to protect women and ensure they are safe in online spaces.

Discussion Questions: 

    1. Why is the harassment of women in online spaces ethically problematic? What value grounds your judgment?
    2. What ethical values are in conflict surrounding Gensler’s way of using speech to combat online harassment? Do you find her approach defensible?
    3. Are there any ethical values in tension with Trollbusters’ approach to using counterspeech?
    4. What ethical limits, in general, should counterspeech be subject to in responding to speech that harasses or hurts?
    5. What other approaches to using counterspeech against online misogyny might be available? What are their ethical advantages or concerns? 

Further Information:

Anderson, M., & Vogels, E. A. (2020, March 6). Young Women Often Face Sexual Harassment Online – Including on Dating Sites and Apps. Available at: https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/03/06/young-women-often-face-sexual-harassment-online-including-on-dating-sites-and-apps/

Duggan, M. (2014). Online Harassment. Available at: http://www.pewinter-net.org/2014/10/22/online-harassment/

Gensler, A. (2019). Anna Gensler Instagranniepants. Available at: https://www.annagensler.com/granniepants.html

Gensler, A. (2014, June 10). The Truth of the Matter. Available at: https://www.annagensler.com/blog/the-truth-of-the-matter

Hare, K. (2016, March 28). Meet the Woman Drowning Out Trolls that Harass Female Writers. Available at: https://www.poynter.org/reporting-editing/2016/meet-the-woman-drowning-out-trolls-that-harass-female-writers/

Hess, A. (2014, April 22). How to Get Revenge on Online Dating Creeps: Draw Them Naked. Available at: https://slate.com/human-interest/2014/04/anna-gensler-gets-back-at-tinder-and-okcupid-creeps-by-drawing-them-naked.html

Kabas, M. (2016a, January 27). Harassment-Fighting HeartMob Aims to Drown Out the Trolls. Daily Dot. Available at: http://www.dailydot.com/irl/ hollaback-online-harassment-heartmob/

Richards, R. D., & Calvert, C. (2000). Counterspeech 2000: A New Look at the Old Remedy for ‘Bad’ Speech. BYU Law Review, 2, 553–586.

Sillesen, L. B. (2015, July/August). Columbia Journalism Review. Available at: http://www.cjr.org/analysis/the_invaluable_service_of_trollbuster.php

Stroud, S. R., & Cox, W. (2018). The Varieties of Feminist Counterspeech in the Misogynistic Online World. Mediating Misogyny, Jacqueline Ryan Vickery & Tracy Everbach (eds.) (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), 293–310.

Authors:

Sophia Park, Kat Williams, & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
June 18, 2020


Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Center for Media Engagement and the case’s author. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom or educational uses. For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the case author through the Center for Media Engagement.

 

Pandemic Prime Time for the Cuomo Brothers

CASE STUDY: Ethics, Objectivity, and Relationships in Journalism

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As panic around the COVID-19 pandemic set in to New York state, the nation’s hardest hit area, Governor Andrew Cuomo, a self-professed “cool dude with a loose mood,” was thrust into the national (and indeed, international) spotlight. His daily appearance in press briefings is characterized by a reliance upon facts, reporting of statistics, and clear, calculated directives. The “New York Tough” attitude, together with his focus on the health of the community (wearing masks is a sign of care for others, and being loving is part of being tough, he suggested) gained approval by not only New Yorkers, but also politicians and citizens around the country.

At the same time, the governor’s “little brother” Christopher, 12 years Andrew’s junior, garnered increased attention when he was diagnosed with COVID-19. He continued to broadcast his nightly CNN show, Cuomo Prime Time, from the basement of his home via Cisco Webex and in casual clothing. The younger Cuomo was quarantined from his wife and three children, and reported experiencing fever and chills so intense that he chipped a tooth. Viewership of his show nearly doubled as the novel coronavirus became the main story in global media.

The brothers’ media appearances came together with increasing frequency in mid-March 2020, when their on-screen interviews were bookended by fraternal banter. While interviewing his brother on his show, “Cuomo Prime Time,” news anchor Chris urged governor Andrew to “call Mom.” Andrew retorted that he already did, and that Mom told me “I’m her favorite.” Before and after more serious discussions about public safety and health protocols in subsequent interviews, the pair bantered about their prowess on the basketball court (Chris claiming superiority), and how much they work (Andrew jesting that Chris only works one hour a day on his popular news broadcast). A collection of the brothers’ on-screen banter on is available online (NowThisNews, April 2, 2020).

When Chris was diagnosed with COVID-19, he became a “canary in the coal mine” and the face of the illness to those who were unfamiliar with its symptoms and challenges. As the public health crisis escalated, Governor Cuomo invited his brother to join his daily press conference via video (CNBC, April 2, 2020). In this meeting with his brother, the governor took on a serious tone, refusing to retort when Chris reported that he had a feverish dream in which his brother was dressed in a ballet outfit, wishing that he could wave a wand and make the virus go away. Rather, Governor Cuomo praised his brother, and said that because he shared his diagnosis and continued to appear on television, “from a journalistic point of view, a public service point of view, you’re answering questions for millions of Americans.” Despite Governor Cuomo’s kindness, the following month brought continued teasing, this time with Chris joking about the size of the nasal swab needed to test the governor for coronavirus (CNN, May 20, 2020).

The brothers’ co-appearances and humour have been met with enthusiasm. The Washington Post collected tweets and accolades from the public, indicating the sense that the Cuomo brothers are “the comedy routine America needs right now” (Chiu, 2020). Comedians Trevor Noah and Ellen DeGeneres have publicly agreed that they are self-declared “Cuomosexuals” (The Ellen Show, April 20, 2020).

Adoration for both of the brothers’ professional work, together with their playful and “bromantic” banter, has arguably been a successful combination of serious news with a lighter side. At times, viewers feel as if they’re in the backseat of a car between two bickering brothers on a long road trip; the sibling rivalry and support feels familiar to many in these trying times. While everything else is scary, confusing, or overwhelming, the expertise and accomplishment of the Cuomo brothers, combined with the entertainment of their rivalries, has potentially brought more attention to news, self-isolation, social distancing, and important public health messages.

However, not everyone is on the Cuomo’s bandwagon. Some news organizations wouldn’t dream of endorsing a government-meets-media relationship on their watch, as CNN apparently did. For example, James Bennett, editorial-page editor at the New York Times, was told that he would be forced to recuse himself from any work at the newspaper related to the presidential election should his brother, Colorado senator Michael Bennett, run for president (Pompeo, 2019). NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg was criticized given her friendship with Supreme Court Justice Scalia (Jensen, 2016). Even if Chris was not intending to show favoritism to his brother, it may have been difficult to be critical or push his brother toward answering difficult questions. Some argue that personal relationships are bound to get in the way of unbiased reporting, and that being “too close” to those involved in news coverage can jeopardize objectivity amongst those who report it.

Indeed, the most recent criticism of Chris and Andrew’s interaction on the news is not their first. In 2013, when a New York train was derailed which left four people dead, Chris interviewed his brother Andrew about the accident. Some journalists argued that although Chris declared his potential conflict of interest, he awkwardly referred to his brother as “Governor,” and slipped in a few accolades into the interview, including that the Governor arrived quickly to the scene. Nevertheless, Chris tweeted that his interview with his brother was no different than others because it was about news, and not about politics (Cuomo, 2013).

The close relationship between the Cuomo brothers is a significant reason why this coverage seems so effective at bringing attention to the story of COVID-19. Some still have concerns, however. Journalism codes of ethics typically advise against becoming too close to sources, given that journalists may have to report unflattering things about people they like or with whom they have forged friendships through being on a long-term assignment. An entertaining interview or on-screen connection can lead to concerns about objectivity. Although the parties may not intend to mislead the audience, Chris may unintentionally treat his brother differently than he would treat another government official serving as a source. Even if Chris’s treatment of his brother is even-handed, there is still the chance that audiences might think that he’s showing favoritism to the New York governor, thereby undermining the credibility they place in either CNN or this particular journalist.

The Cuomo’s on-screen fraternal relationship is a delicate balance between a unique and powerful style of reporting that appeals to viewers and prudence in not crossing an ethical line that could expose journalists to potential biases. The Cuomos both appear to want to “do the right thing” by way of informing the public about their relationship. Yet they must also ensure that the stories and information on air does not erode trust and compromise important messages – in this case, about public health and safety as it pertains to COVID-19. 

Discussion Questions: 

  1. By continuing to broadcast “Cuomo Prime Time” from his home, was Chris, as Andrew suggested, doing a service to the American people by answering their questions about the effects of COVID-19?
  2. Is it acceptable and appropriate that Governor Cuomo was interviewed by his brother Chris during his appearance on CNN? Should these interviews have been passed to another anchor? Would it matter if the fraternal banter that audiences have loved and appreciated was lost?
  3. Chris Cuomo appeared on his brother’s government press conference wearing a baseball cap featuring branding from his own news program, “Cuomo Prime Time.” He claimed that he was wearing the cap because he needed a haircut and couldn’t get one because he was in quarantine. Is wearing this cap advertising his show? Is it advertising the news network at which he is employed? If so, is that problematic?
  4. In 2013, Chris claimed (via twitter) that he would not interview his brother Andrew about politics. Did he break this commitment by asking his brother, in a COVID-related interview on CNN, if he was going to run for President? Did he break this commitment by asking him about how the novel coronavirus has affected New York state?
  5. Is disclosing the relationship between journalist and interviewee enough to mitigate potential conflicts of interest? If the audience is aware of a relationship, does this adequately equip them to evaluate the reporting? 

Further Information:

Baldwin, B. (2020, April 20). “How fighting coronavirus taught me about the gift of connection.” CNN. Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2020/04/19/health/coronavirus-diary-sickness-brooke-baldwin/index.html

Chiu, A. (2020, March 24). “‘The comedy routine America needs right now’: The Cuomo brothers return to prime time.” The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/03/24/tv-cnn-cuomo/

CNBC. (2020, April 2). “New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo holds a press conference on the coronavirus outbreak.” Retrieved from https://www.cnbc.com/2020/04/02/watch-live-ny-gov-andrew-cuomo-holds-a-press-conference-on-the-coronavirus.html

CNN. (2020, May 20). “Chris Cuomo teases brother Andrew with giant test swab.” Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/videos/politics/2020/05/21/chris-andrew-cuomo-swabs-test-joke-cpt-vpx.cnn

Cuomo, C. [@ChrisCuomo). (2013, December 2). [Twitter moment]. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/ChrisCuomo/status/407532380518248448

Jensen, E. (2016, February 26), “When is a friendship a conflict of interest?” NPR Public Editor. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/sections/publiceditor/2016/02/26/467813499/when-is-a-friendship-a-conflict-of-interest

NowThisNews. (2020, April 2). Best of the Cuomo brothers: America’s favorite TV family during Coronavirus. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vHGhAIEqJcg

Pompeo, J. (2019, February 21). “James Bennett will recuse himself”: If Senator Michael Bennett runs for president, his brother, the New York Times Opinion editor, will stand down. Vanity Fair. Retrieved from https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2019/02/james-bennet-will-recuse-himself-if-senator-michael-bennet-runs-for-president

The Ellen Show. (2020, April 20). “Trevor Noah is a Cuomosexual.” Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O93vQQamzAw

Author:

Sharon Lauricella, Ph.D.
Associate Professor and Program Director
Faculty of Social Science and Humanities
Ontario Tech University
www.sharonlauricella.com

May 26, 2020


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