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Whose Image is It to Use?

CASE STUDY: The Ethics of Persuasive Pictures in Political Advocacy

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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 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.

 

Politics in the Age of Digital Information Overload

CASE STUDY: Facebook’s Policy to Allow Misleading Political Ads

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On September 24, 2019 Facebook’s Vice President of Global Affairs and Communications, Nick Clegg, announced during his speech at the Atlantic Festival in Washington DC that Facebook would not fact-check or censor political advertising on the social media platform. Speaking on behalf of the tech company, he noted: “We don’t believe that it’s an appropriate role for us to referee political debates and prevent a politician’s speech from reaching its audience and being subject to public debate and scrutiny” (Clegg, 2019).

 

With the 2020 presidential election in the United States approaching, Facebook immediately faced criticism for this decision, especially since it closely followed other controversial decisions involving the tech company’s refusal to remove misleading content – namely, a doctored video which made House Speaker Nancy Pelosi appear drunk and a Donald Trump ad which accused candidate Joe Biden of bribing the Ukrainian government to fire a prosecutor investigating the former Vice President’s son. Despite the Pelosi video’s misleading editing techniques and the Biden-focused ad’s lack of evidence to back it up its serious claims, Facebook stood firm in their decision (Stewart, 2019). There is the probability that more misinformation campaigns will be run by a range of parties in the next election, causing worries about the hopes of achieving a free and informed election. For example, Roose recounts a Facebook ad “run by [the group] North Dakota Democrats [which] warned North Dakotans that they could lose their out-of-state hunting licenses if they voted in the midterm elections” – an assertion that was utterly false (Roose, 2018).

On October 17, 2019 founder and CEO of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg spoke publicly at Georgetown University explaining his reasoning for the policy to not fact-check political advertisements, using his 3-minute speech to appeal to the First Amendment. Zuckerberg emphasized that he is concerned about misinformation, but ultimately believes it is dangerous to give a private entity the power to determine which forms of non-truthful speech are deserving of censorship. Instead, he stressed the importance of the credibility of the individual behind a post, rather than the post itself. Zuckerberg hopes to accomplish this through the introduction of another policy in which Facebook requires users to provide a government ID and prove their location in order to purchase and run political ads on the site (Zuckerberg, 2019).

Zuckerberg maintains that through the transparency of identity, accountability will be achieved and “people [can] decide what’s credible, not tech companies” (Zuckerberg, 2019). Appealing to John Stuart Mill’s ideas of free speech, Zuckerberg believes that the truth is always bound to come out. The unfiltered speech of politicians provides an opportunity for claims to be publicly evaluated and contested. If deception is revealed, then an opportunity for correction is provided through the refutation of the false speech of others. If a non-popular source turns out to be right about an unpopular point, others have the opportunity to learn from that truth. In either case, the hope is that the political community can use the identity of candidates or speakers in making judgments concerning who they deem credible and what arguments are worthy of belief. Censoring political information, the argument goes, only deprives people of the ability to see who their representatives really are.

Many find Zuckerberg’s free-speech defense of Facebook’s stance too idealized and not realistic enough. Of particular importance is the evolving role that social media has to play in society. Social media platforms were once only utilized for catching up with friends; now many Americans catch their news from social media sites rather than traditional print or televised news (Suciu, 2019). Additionally, as Facebook’s algorithm “gets to know our interests better, it also gets better at serving up the content that reinforces those interests, while also filtering out those things we generally don’t like” (Pariser, 2016). Based on user data such as what we “like” or what our friends share, Facebook may facilitate the creation of an “echo chamber” by providing news to our feeds that is increasingly one-sided or identifiably partisan. Such arrangements where people only engage with those who share like-minded views contribute heavily to confirmation bias – a logical error that occurs when people “stop gathering information when the evidence gathered so far confirms the views or prejudices one would like to be true” Heshmat, 2015). If politicians are able to mislead in their purchased advertising, they could use such a platform to encourage individuals to engage in confirmation bias by feeding them information tailored to match their data without critically looking into it – or opposing information – any further (Heshmat, 2015). Furthermore, those hoping that Facebook will crack down on paid political advertising are disheartened by the conflict of interest surrounding this issue. Political advertisers pay top dollar to advertise on social media sites. In fact, the Trump campaign alone has already spent more than $27 million on Facebook’s platform and the Wall Street Journal predicts that “in 2020, digital political ad spending [will] increase to about $2.8 billion” (Isaac & Kang, 2020 and Bruell, 2019). The economics of political advertising revenue make Facebook’s decision about curtailing it even harder to swallow.

The larger question of whether platforms like Facebook should become the arbiters of truthful and informative political speech on their sites presents one of the most pressing ethical dilemmas of the information age. On one hand, it is a dangerous and possibly slippery slope to place private tech companies into the position of deciding what counts as untruthful speech deserving of censorship. Some might worry that the distinction between truthful and untruthful political speech isn’t one that could be enforced – political ads often make questionable inferences from cherry-picked evidence, or purposefully extract specific phrases, images, or statements out of their context to render their opponents especially undesirable among audience members. How could anyone – including Zuckerberg – be tasked with evaluating anything but blatant falsehoods among the sea of claims that are questionable or badly reasoned to only some on the political spectrum? Given the challenging nature of determining what a lie is (as opposed to strategic presentation, lies of omission, or simple mistakes), the issue of eliminating purposefully untruthful speech becomes that much more challenging. Many would believe that political actors, just like everyday voters, should be able to express opinions and arguments that don’t seem particularly well-reasoned to all. On the other hand, the classic conception of free expression and the marketplace of ideas that grounds this reluctance to eliminate untruthful speech on social media may not be so realistic in our age of technology and self-selecting groups and political communities.

Between information overload and confirmation bias, it may be unreasonable to assume everyone can and will look into every news story they see on Facebook. And, as some critics would point out, many of the most vulnerable in our society, such as women and minorities, suffer the brunt of harassment online when absolute expression is valued. With so much at stake on both sides it is worthwhile to consider what has the most potential to enhance or inhibit the democratic process: reducing interference in personal expression or reducing misinformation in political advertising?

Discussion Questions: 

  1. What are the central values in conflict in Facebook’s decision to not fact-check political advertisements?
  2. Has the evolution of technology and the overload of information in our era mitigated John Stuart Mill’s arguments for unrestrained free speech?
  3. Do social media companies like Facebook owe the public fact-checking services? Why or why not?
  4. Who is responsible for accurate political information: Producers, consumers, or disseminators of advertisements? 

Further Information:

Bruell, A. (2019, June 4). “Political Ad Spending Will Approach $10 Billion in 2020, New Forecast Predicts.” Available at: https://www.wsj.com/articles/political-ad-spending-will-approach-10-billion-in-2020-new-forecast-predicts-11559642400

Clegg, Nick. (2019, November 13). “Facebook: Elections and Political Speech.” Available at: https://about.fb.com/news/2019/09/elections-and-political-speech/

Heshmat, S. (2015, April 23). “What Is Confirmation Bias?” Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/science-choice/201504/what-is-confirmation-bias

Isaac, M., & Kang, C. (2020, January 9). “Facebook Says It Won’t Back Down from Allowing Lies in Political Ads.” Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/09/technology/facebook-political-ads-lies.html

Pariser, Eli. (2016, July 24). “The Reason Your Feed Became An Echo Chamber — And What To Do About It.” Available at: https://www.npr.org/sections/alltechconsidered/2016/07/24/486941582/the-reason-your-feed-became-an-echo-chamber-and-what-to-do-about-it

Roose, K. (2018, November 4). “We Asked for Examples of Election Misinformation. You Delivered.” Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/04/us/politics/election-misinformation-facebook.html

Stewart, E. (2019, October 9). “Facebook is refusing to take down a Trump ad making false claims about Joe Biden.” Available at: https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2019/10/9/20906612/trump-campaign-ad-joe-biden-ukraine-facebook

Suciu, P. (2019, October 11). “More Americans Are Getting Their News from Social Media.” Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/petersuciu/2019/10/11/more-americans-are-getting-their-news-from-social-media/#6bc8516f3e17

Zuckerberg, Mark. (2019, October 17). Washington Post. “Watch live: Facebook CEO Zuckerberg speaks at Georgetown University.” Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2MTpd7YOnyU

Authors:

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

May 21, 2020


This case study is supported by funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. It was produced as part of a cooperative endeavor by the Media Ethics Initiative and the Project on Ethics in Political Communication. 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.

 

Campaigning for Your Enemies

CASE STUDY: Deceptive Motives in Political Advertising

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akin2In 2012, Democratic Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill purchased $1.7 million in television advertisements focusing on one of her Republican rivals, Rep. Todd Akin. Instead of tearing him down, the ad surprisingly made claims that would endear him to Republican voters. One of McCaskill’s purchased television commercials called Akin a “crusader against bigger government” and referenced his “pro-family agenda,” finally concluding that “Akin alone says President Obama is ‘a complete menace to our civilization’” (McCaskill for Missouri 2012, 2012a).

McCaskill also ran advertisements meant to question the integrity and conservative credentials of Akin’s Republican rivals. Her advertisements attacked businessman John Brunner for an inconsistent history of voting in elections, and saying he “can’t even say where he would cut the federal budget.” Another ad called former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman “more pay-to-play,” and “just more of the same” (McCaskill for Missouri 2012, 2012b). Steelman’s campaign said the ad “further shows that Sarah Steelman is the candidate that the status quo fears the most,” while the Senate Conservatives fund (which opposed Akin but had not yet chosen one of the other candidates) said “Akin isn’t weak because he’s too conservative. He’s weak because he’s too liberal on spending and earmarks.” The Akin campaign also declined to comment on whether the ad was meant to help them: “While there is much speculation about Claire McCaskill’s strategy, what is clear is that Todd Akin has honestly and directly answered questions and unabashedly articulates a vision for the path ahead. McCaskill and other Democrats may see this as a liability; voters see this as integrity” (Catanese, 2012).

McCaskill later stated that her campaign’s goal in running these commercials for a possible opponent was to boost Akin among his Republican opponents running for the nomination: “Running for reelection to the U.S. Senate as a Democrat from Missouri, I had successfully manipulated the Republican primary so that in the general election I would face the candidate I was most likely to beat” (McCaskill, 2015). NPR matter-of-factly referred to Akin as “the Republican [McCaskill] preferred to face.” (Frank, 2012). POLITICO reported that “If there was any doubt which Republican Sen. Claire McCaskill wants to run against this fall, a trio of ads she released Thursday put it to rest.” (Catanese, 2012). There are few critiques of the strategy, and they focus on the strategy’s savviness (or lack thereof). For example, Roll Call wrote “Missouri political insiders saw the McCaskill tactic as too-cute-by-half, unless it worked, and it did.”

Debate about this strategy’s ethical dimensions was hard to come by, though the effort to aid Akin led to a campaign finance complaint: in 2015, a watchdog group filed a complaint against McCaskill for spending $40,000 polling Republican voters in Missouri and sharing findings with the Akin campaign, in excess of the $2,500 limit for an in-kind (non-monetary) campaign contribution (Scott, 2015). While the complaint was dismissed, it underscores that there were some who found McCaskill’s treatment of the Akin campaign in the Republican primary questionable (Hunter et al, 2015).

McCaskill acknowledged that this tactic of helping weaker political opponents succeed brought with it political worries: “I was fully aware of the risk and would have felt terrible if Todd Akin had become a United States senator. On the other hand, if you went down the list of issues, there was not a dime’s worth of difference among the three primary candidates on how they would have voted if they had become senators.” Yet McCaskill’s campaign team thought there was something different about Akin, something that they could exploit to win the election for the senate seat. McCaskill went on to defeat him in the general election after he made comments about “legitimate rape” rarely resulting in pregnancy, bolstering the extreme image McCaskill’s campaign had set out to create (Cohen, 2012).

Some are not convinced that this is an ethical strategy for a political candidate to utilize. Even if the ads were factually accurate, the motivations behind the ads were not as transparent as most political advertisements are (“I’m candidate X, I approve this message because I want to defeat this person I am attacking”). If democracy is concerned with placing the best leaders in positions of power through advocacy and votes, McCaskill could be indirectly helping to elect someone that might be less qualified than his rivals. Even if the gamble paid off with her victory, some would worry that the tactic involved deception about her true motives—her ads were not really meant to echo her or her campaign’s views of Akin’s liabilities (such as abortion, on which she later campaigned aggressively and effectively against Akin), but instead used appeals targeted to Republican primary voters so that they would pick a candidate against their electoral interests. By pressing the right Republican “buttons” with her praise, critics could worry that McCaskill’s ads represent the kind of manipulative communication that we want to discourage in political discourse. In the eyes of skeptics, this sort of strategic communication was an ethical risk that might reduce voter trust in any message from McCaskill’s campaign.

Beyond this particular election, McCaskill’s strategy of bolstering her most beatable opponent raises larger ethical issues in political communication. Candidates are free to produce persuasive ads, including ones that are emotionally powerful in their provocative wording, claims, and imagery. But advocating for someone one believes would be a disastrous Senator, should they win, seems deceptive. Even if the information in the advertisement was accurate, running an advertisement subtly encouraging voters to vote for Todd Akin for a purpose other than electing Todd Akin to the U.S. Senate could undermine voters’ faith in both the information they’ve been given and in the political process itself. If voters knew that the McCaskill campaign’s motivation for attacking Akin was to help Akin win a Republican primary, would they receive the message the same way, and would this tactic feed into cynicism about the political process?

Are political advertisements best thought of as a reflection of what a candidate believes, and what they want us to believe about them or their opponents? Or are they simply tools to motivate or demotivate certain behaviors by voters? With our enhanced ability to distance messages from one speaker (through real or fake organizations, super PACs, and so forth), and with our technological ability to crunch data to target specific messages to specific groups, what are the ethical limits on the creative and strategic messaging a campaign uses? 

Discussion Questions: 

  1. Should campaigns devote resources to advancing or helping prospective opponents who hold views they truly believe are dangerous or extreme?
  2. If you were a campaign manager, could you live with the prospect (however unexpected) of this candidate being elected?
  3. What is your threshold for your opponent where you could not entertain the possibility of “helping” them?
  4. There is always the possibility that your decision will become publicly known. In the event “your” candidate is successful and you face them in a general election, are your attacks against them less credible if it becomes known that you helped put them closer to elected office?
  5. If you were in a competitive primary and one of your opponents was helped by the opposing party, would you have the same reaction to the ethics of the situation?

Further Information:

Catanese, David. 2012, July 19. “McCaskill meddles in GOP primary.” POLITICO. Available at: https://www.politico.com/story/2012/07/mccaskill-meddles-in-gop-primary-078737

Cohen, David. 2012, August 19. “Earlier: Akin: ‘Legitimate rape’ rarely leads to pregnancy .” POLITICO. Available at: https://www.politico.com/story/2012/08/akin-legitimate-rape-victims-dont-get-pregnant-079864

Hunter, Caroline C., Lee E. Goodman, and Matthew S. Petersen. 2017. Statement of Reasons of Vice Chair Caroline C. Hunter and Commissioners Lee E. Goodman And Matthew S. Petersen. Washington, DC: Federal Election Commission, https://eqs.fec.gov/eqsdocsMUR/17044406199.pdf

James, Frank. 2012, August 8. “Missouri’s Claire McCaskill Gets Clarity On Her Opponent, If Not Her Future.” National Public Radio. Available at: https://www.npr.org/sections/itsallpolitics/2012/08/08/158413422/missouris-claire-mccaskill-gets-clarity-on-opponent-if-not-her-future

McCaskill, Claire. 2015, August 11. “How I Helped Todd Akin Win — So I Could Beat Him Later.” POLITICO. Available at: https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2015/08/todd-akin-missouri-claire-mccaskill-2012-121262

McCaskill for Missouri 2012. 2012a, July 19. “Three of a kind, one and the same: Todd Akin.” YouTube. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ec4t_3vaBMc

—. 2012b, July 19. “Three of a kind, one and the same: Sarah Steelman.” YouTube. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JwPWqg_z4EQ

Miller, Jonathan. 2012, August 7. “Missouri: Todd Akin Wins GOP Nod to Face Claire McCaskill.” Roll Call. Available at: https://www.rollcall.com/2012/08/07/missouri-todd-akin-wins-gop-nod-to-face-claire-mccaskill

Murphy, Kevin. 2012, November 6. “Missouri Republican Akin loses after comments on rape.” Reuters. Available at: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-campaign-senate-missouri/missouri-republican-akin-loses-after-comments-on-rape-idUSBRE8A60HJ20121107

Scott, Eugene. 2015, August 14. “Group accuses McCaskill of violating federal campaign finance laws.” CNN. Available at: https://www.cnn.com/2015/08/13/politics/claire-mccaskill-todd-akin/index.html

Authors:

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

May 7, 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.

 

Are there Bigger Fish to Fry in the Struggle for Animal Rights?

CASE STUDY: PETA’s Campaign against Anti-Animal Language

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twobirds

PETA / TeachKind / Modified

Idioms are everywhere in the English language. To most, they are playful and innocuous additions to our conversations. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), however, disagrees. On December 4, 2018 the group took to the internet to let English speakers know the error of their ways. The high-profile—and highly controversial—animal welfare group used their Twitter and Instagram accounts to advocate for a removal of “speciesism from… daily conversations” (PETA, 2018). “Speciesism” is the unreasonable and harmful privileging of one species—typically humans—over other species of animals. Like racism or sexism, it is a bias that PETA wants us to shun and abandon in our actions. Their campaign, however, took the new step of targeting anti-animal language in common idioms and suggested animal friendly alternatives. When knocking out tasks, one should say they were able to “feed two birds with one scone,” rather than “kill two birds with one stone.” “Take the bull by the horns” was replaced with “take the flower by the thorns,” and “more than one way to skin a cat” was replaced by “more than one way to peel a potato.” Instead of being the member of the household to “bring home the bacon,” a so-called breadwinner might “bring home the bagels” (PETA, 2018). As one Twitter user questioned, “surely [PETA] [has] bigger fish to fry than this” (Wang, 2018)?

The organization argued that “our society has worked hard to eliminate racist, homophobic, and ableist language and the prejudices that usually accompany it” (PETA, 2018). To those offering bigger fish, they responded that “suggesting that there are more pressing social justice issues that require more immediate attention is selfish” (PETA, 2018). Since certain language may perpetuate discriminatory ideals, PETA encouraged the public to understand the harms and values implied by speciesist language. This type of language “denigrates and belittles nonhuman animals, who are interesting, feeling individuals” (PETA, 2018). To remove speciesist language from your daily conversation is potentially a simple change and, PETA would claim, a far kinder way to use language.

However, some would argue that PETA’s choice to liken anti-animal language to other problematic language—slurs based on race, sexuality, or ability—is a step too far. Many in the public voiced concerns with PETA’s efforts, particularly the implicit equation of violence against humans with violence against animals. A journalist from The Root, Monique Judge, explained, “racist language is inextricably tied to racism, racial terrorism, and racial violence… it is not the same thing as using animals in a turn of phrase or enjoying a BLT” (Chow, 2018). Political consultant Shermichael Singleton agreed with Judge, calling PETA’s statement “extremely ignorant” and “blatantly irresponsible” given the direct ties between racist language and physical violence (Chow, 2018).

Furthermore, others critiqued PETA’s suggested idioms, as either still harmful to animals or themselves harmful to other groups. For example, the Washington Post wondered if scones were really a healthy option for birds (Wang, 2018). Similarly, one Twitter user contested that feeding a horse that’s already fed would be bad for the horse, it was potentially hypocritical to argue animals are sacred and not plants, and that “bring home the bagels” could be anti-Semitic (Chow, 2018). Another Twitter user urged—tongue firmly in cheek—that taking by the flower by the thorns “sounds like some blatant anti-plantism … which is just more speciesism” (Moye, 2018).

As the public voiced both serious and sarcastic disapproval of PETA’s campaign, the animal welfare organization stood strong on its message. In response to likening anti-animal language with racist, homophobic, and ableist language, PETA’s spokeswoman Ashley Byrne said, “‘Encouraging people to be kind’ was not ‘a competition.’” Furthermore, Byrne commented “our compassion does not need to be limited,” asserting that “teaching people to be kind to animals only helps in terms of encouraging them to practice kindness in general” (Wang, 2018). As society is becoming more progressive about animal welfare in other ways, PETA wants the public to use language that encourages kindness to animals. As PETA put it in their original tweet, “words matter” (Moye, 2018). Broadening the recognition of this truth, PETA argues, could be helpful in alleviating the suffering of humans, not just animals.

While PETA’s campaign seems to focus on an individualized and language-conscious approach toward improving animal welfare, their comparison of so-called anti-animal language to the struggles of marginalized groups provoked wary reactions. The organization has a long line of radical and controversial campaigns promoting animal welfare, making it difficult to broadly assess their methods as helpful or counterproductive. Perhaps breaking into the social media attention economy was part of this campaign’s purpose. Regardless of its intentions, PETA’s latest campaign has prompted its audience to consider the nature of harmful language in social conventions, and whether or not the audience is living up to their own standards. Leaving talk of skinning cats aside, perhaps PETA has succeeded in getting us to realize there’s more than one way to turn a phrase.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Are speakers obligated to make relatively small changes to improve the world through language, even if those improvements seem minor?
  2. What are the ethical issues with equating anti-animal and, for example, anti-Black language? Are these the same or different than those of comparing other forms of human oppression?
  3. Is there a way to differentiate racist/sexist language use and anti-animal language use without valuing human life over that of animal life?
  4. What responsibility do humans have to animals? Should this responsibility manifest itself through language or other means first?
  5. When, if ever, is it ethical to intentionally provoke controversy to draw attention to a political or moral issue?

Further Information:

Chow, Lorraine. “PETA Wants Us to Stop Using ‘Anti-Animal Language’.” EcoWatch, 5 December 2018. Available at: https://www.ecowatch.com/peta-twitter-anti-animal-language-2622492677.html

PETA. “‘Bring Home the Bagels’: We Suggest Anti-Speciesist Language—Many Miss the Point” PETA, 7 December 2018. Available at: https://www.peta.org/blog/bring-home-the-bagels/

Moye, David. “PETA Gets Dogged For Tweet Demanding End To ‘Anti-Animal Language’.” HuffPost, 5 December 2018. Available at: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/peta-anti-animal-language-tweet_n_5c071400e4b0a6e4ebd97522

Wang, Amy B. “PETA Wants to Change ‘Anti-Animal’ Sayings, but the Internet Thinks They’re Feeding a Fed Horse.” The Washington Post, 6 December 2018. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/science/2018/12/05/peta-wants-change-anti-animal-sayings-internet-thinks-theyre-feeding-fed-horse/

Authors:

Sophia Park, Dakota Park-Ozee, & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
April 13, 2020


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 at sstroud (at) austin.utexas.edu.

 

Images of Death in the Media

CASE STUDY: Journalism and the Ethics of Using the Dead

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The wonders of technology in the 21st century are less wonderful when looking into the eyes of a dead body on your handheld screen. Gruesome images can serve as a powerful journalistic tool to influence the emotions of viewers and inspire action, but they can also be disturbing for many viewers. Some argue that such shocking images shouldn’t be used to increase attention to a story. Others claim only shocking images can be used to illustrate the intensity of an event, a vital part of moving and educating the public. Where do we draw the line regarding what is appropriate in publishing images capturing death?

Historically, death images have had a controversial past in American journalism. For example, photos of horrific lynchings provide modern viewers with an accurate depiction of the normalization of brutal death for African Americans, with crowds of white townspeople surrounding the hangings with refreshments and a “picnic-like atmosphere” (Zuckerman, 2017). These events portray a lack of humanity; while African Americans are burned and dismembered, everyone else is merrymaking, as if they were at a neighborhood carnival. One could argue that photos speak louder than words in this case, as historical news reports describing the atrocities conveyed them as spectacles, but not to the extent of celebrations. For example, following a headline announcing the lynching of John Hartfield at 5 o’clock that afternoon, a sub-headline read “Thousands of People Are Flocking into Ellisville to Attend the Event.” Gruesome photos seem to be useful now, however, to understand the environment that encouraged these killings. Though it is recognized that these images are prone to disturb, many maintain that it is quite necessary to confront them in order to prevent anything of its kind in the future. While “there is no comfort in looking at this history—and little hope save the courage of those who survived it … there may be no justice… until we stop looking away” (Zuckerman, 2017). This is the same reasoning that 60 Minutes relied upon when they decided to show historical lynching photos in a segment produced by Oprah Winfrey on lynching and racist violence in America. Of course, the challenge is that these pictures might cause or invoke psychological harm among those related to the victims of lynching or those fearful of racist violence. There is also the possibility that airing such photos might cause enjoyment or encouragement among racist viewers; critics might remind us that many of these shocking photos were taken and celebrated in their day because they captured an event prized by violent racists.

Some of the most controversial imagery in the contemporary media comes from school massacres. While the mass shooting at Columbine High School in 1999 is certainly an unforgettable moment in our nation’s history, current students continue their battle against what they see as the causes of such tragedies. As part of the #MyLastShot campaign, students are encouraged to place a sticker on the back of their driver’s license that indicates their desire to have photos of their bodies published in the event they are killed by gun violence, in a way similar to the marks indicating organ donor status (Baldacci & Andone, 2019). Campaign founder and Columbine student Kaylee Tyner said, “it’s about bringing awareness to the actual violence, and to start conversations.” She also referenced the impact the viral video of students hiding under their desks during the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School had on her: “I remember seeing people on Twitter saying it was so horrible… but what I was thinking was, no, that’s the reality of a mass shooting.” While such school shootings are comparatively rare, they are clearly horrible. The #MyLastShot campaign represents an attempt to get individuals to agree in advance to use shocking imagery of their death to showcase these horrors to others. If one is killed, the hope is that the image of their dead body might bring about a better understanding of the problem of school shootings, and perhaps move readers to action. Even if one is not killed in a school shooting, agreeing to the conditions of the #MyLastShot campaign still illustrates a willingness to do something that many perceive as shocking, and thereby functions as a plea for heightened attention to issues such as school shootings and gun control measures. At the same time, viewing the photos and videos of school shootings may be so traumatizing to others as to make children afraid of attending school, and for that matter, make parents afraid of sending them. Most children will not be directly affected by a school shooting. How much fear and imagery is needed to motivate the right amount of concern and action on the part of readers?

The #MyLastShot campaign leverages consent before one becomes a victim of violent crime. Not all newsworthy images involve subjects that could give such consent in advance. In cases where subjects of photographs cannot give consent for the use of their images or likenesses in news stories, lines begin to blur separating the newsworthy from the private. The National Press Photographers Association’s Code of Ethics states “intrude on private moments of grief only when the public has an overriding and justifiable need to see” (Code of Ethics). Determining when this “need to see” is applicable, however, is the difficult part of death photography. This is especially true when covering wars and other violent conflicts. The photo of Alan Kurdi, a two-year-old Syrian refugee whose dead body washed up on the Turkish coast after attempting to flee to Europe, overwhelmed the world with despair. Many believed the photo was vital in understanding the terrors of the refugee crisis, while others were disgusted at the exhibition made of his body throughout the media. Kurdi did not—or possibly could not, given his status as a child—consent to such a use of his corpse for news purposes. Regardless, the powerful image of Kurdi caused change; the British prime minister was so moved by it that the United Kingdom began to accept more refugees (Walsh & Time Photo, 2015). Yet Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch, who was the initial distributor of the photo, said “when I see the image now on people’s social media profiles, I contact them and I ask them to take it down. I think it is important that we give Alan Kurdi back his privacy and his dignity. It’s important to let this little boy rest now.”

Images of death tell a certain truth, but their reception often differs based upon the intention behind their use and the meanings imputed by their viewers. It isn’t uncommon for photojournalists to be accused of non-journalistic advocacy in their most shocking photographs. For many, though, the only message being conveyed through a shocking image of death is the truth, one that happens to hit us harder than most other written stories. But telling a shocking truth does not exhaust all that journalists owe their subjects and readers. When can images of death be used in a way that respects the deceased and contributes to a potentially laudatory social goal of the journalist conveying this information?

Discussion Questions:

  1. What are the different sorts of images of death mentioned in this case, and what differentiates each type?
  2. Under what conditions, if any, is it acceptable to photograph the dead for news purposes?
  3. What responsibility do journalists and news organizations have to the deceased? How does one respect an individual who no longer is alive?
  4. If journalism is meant to inform on important public issues, could a shocking photograph be too moving? When does powerful photojournalism shade into unethical manipulation?
  5. What ethical obligations do photojournalists owe their readers? Do these considerations change when violence or other human agents are involved?

Further Information:

Baldacci, Marlena, & Andone, Dakin. “Columbine Students Start Campaign to Share Images of Their Death If They’re Killed in Gun Violence.” CNN, 30 March 2019, Available at: http://www.cnn.com/2019/03/30/us/columbine-gun-violence-campaign/index.html

“Code of Ethics,” National Press Photographers Association. Available at: https://nppa.org/code-ethics

Farmer, Brit McCandless. “Why 60 Minutes aired Photos of Lynchings in Report by Oprah.” 60 Minutes Overtime, 27 April 2018, Available at: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/why-60-minutes-aired-photos-of-lynchings-in-report-by-oprah/

Lewis, Helen. “How Newsrooms Handle Graphic Images of Violence.” Nieman Reports, 5 January 2016, Available at: http://www.niemanreports.org/articles/how-newsrooms-handle-graphic-images-of-violence/

Waldman, Paul. “What the Parkland Students Wanted the World to See-But the Media Didn’t.” The American Prospect, 2018, Available at: http://www.prospect.org/article/what-parkland-students-wanted-world-see-news-media-didnt

Walsh, Bryan, and TIME Photo. “Drowned Syrian Boy Alan Kurdi’s Story: Behind the Photo.” Time, Time, 29 December 2015, Available at: http://www.time.com/4162306/alan-kurdi-syria-drowned-boy-refugee-crisis/

Zuckerman, Michael. “Telling the Truth about American Terror.” Harvard Law Today, 4 May 2015, Available at: http://www.today.law.harvard.edu/feature/telling-the-truth-about-american-terror/

Authors:

Page Trotter, Dakota Park-Ozee, & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
April 2, 2020


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 at sstroud (at) austin.utexas.edu.

 

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