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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


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.

 

Beer Cans and Cancel Culture

CASE STUDY: The Ethics of the Carson King Case

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On ESPN’s “College GameDay” program, a 24-year-old’s sign requesting beer money went viral and raised more than a million dollars from amused fans. The football fan and beer-lover, Carson King, purchased just one case of beer with the funds and donated the rest to the Stead Family Children’s Hospital. Anheuser-Busch and Venmo matched the final sum, tripling the total donation (Ta, 2019). Initially, King was hailed as an “Iowa Legend” for his philanthropy. However, Des Moises Register reporter Aaron Calvin eventually uncovered and published two racist tweets that King wrote as a high school student, quickly sparking controversy. Calvin’s article ultimately led Anheuser-Busch to withdraw their public support for King, and although he retained some of his supporters, his previously glowing reputation was tarnished.

King’s story is an exemplary case of a rising phenomenon of public shaming known as cancel culture. After an accusation of problematic speech or action, an individual is “cancelled” from a social group by being boycotted and ostracized.  John Hirschauer argued that Calvin intended to cancel King by publishing his tweets. Hirschauer declared that Calvin’s “decision to highlight two obscure, inflammatory tweets from a man’s adolescence of a sentiment that Calvin admits are ‘not representative artifacts of’ the man being profiled, is the sort of spiteful ‘gotcha’ thinking devoid of proportion that fuels ‘cancel culture’ writ large” (Hirschauer, 2019). In Hirschauer’s opinion, publishing the tweets was a malicious choice that disregarded King’s good deeds and personal growth.

The Des Moines Register’s executive editor, Carol Hunter, disagrees. She believes that Calvin acted ethically by providing comprehensive information about a public figure of interest. She explains that “The jokes were highly inappropriate and were public posts. Shouldn’t that be acknowledged to all the people who had donated money to King’s cause or were planning to do so?” (Andrew and Zdanowicz, 2019). Hunter argues that donors have the right to know about the man asking for their money. After all, if donors know that their donations could be associated with racism, they might choose to give their money to other charities that share their values. She maintains that Calvin’s choice informed and empowered donors to make a better moral decision.

Calvin’s decision to publish King’s tweets could also be viewed as an effort to morally educate the public. A virtue of cancel culture is that it effectively signals that speech or behavior like King’s is unacceptable. It draws attention to problematic speech and punishes it, demonstrating to observers that they too should avoid such speech. On the other hand, the immediate “cancellation” of those who have made mistakes may not be the best way to educate them. By being shamed and isolated, they are cut off from informed and moderating influences. As a result, cancel culture may play a role in radicalizing individuals with problematic views and may actually discourage ethical growth.

Former President Barack Obama takes the latter view, explaining that cancel culture isn’t a way to effect change in others’ behavior. Shortly after King’s rise to fame and fall from glory, Obama argued that, “if all you’re doing is casting stones, you’re probably not going to get that far. That’s easy to do” (Reub & Taylor, 2019). In essence, merely shaming people for their moral errors isn’t enough to get someone to do better or to participate in the community in acceptable ways. According to Obama, “That’s not activism. That’s not bringing about change” (Reub & Taylor, 2019). By this view, Calvin’s publication of King’s tweets was not a noble act. Rather, it distracted attention from meaningful action—the hospital fundraising—to a more petty controversy about past mistakes.

Cancel culture—for better or worse—is changing how people engage with one another. In fact, shortly after Calvin released his profile on King, readers dug up a few of Calvin’s own old, offensive tweets (Shepherd, 2019). The Des Moines Register fired Calvin and he found himself cancelled along with King. This ironic twist of events leaves many to wonder: is this how the story should have played out?

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Is there an ethical problem with cancel culture? What values are in conflict in this case study?
  2. Is cancel culture socially just? Can an apology or remorse by the wrongdoer suffice to excuse them from being “cancelled”?
  3. Communicating true information is an important goal of journalism. Even so, would it have been morally permissible for Calvin to leave the racist tweets out of his profile on King if additional donation opportunities for sick children could have followed?
  4. How is cancel culture and its punishments like or unlike the judgments and punishments prevalent in the court system?

 Further Information:

Andrew, Scottie, and Zdanowicz, Christina, “He raised a million dollars for a hospital through beer money. Then his old racist tweets surfaced.” CNN, September 2019. Available at: https://www.cnn.com/2019/09/26/us/carson-king-busch-cuts-ties-beer-posts-trnd/index.html

Hirschauer, John, “On the Firing of Aaron Calvin.” National Review, October 2019. Available at: https://www.nationalreview.com/corner/on-the-firing-of-aaron-calvin/

Reinstein, Julia, “The Reporter Fired In The ‘Busch Light Guy’ Scandal Said He Feels ‘Abandoned’ By The Des Moines Register.” BuzzFeed News, September 2019. Available at: https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/juliareinstein/des-moines-register-iowa-reporter-fired-aaron-calvin-carson

Reub, Emily S., and Taylor, Derrick Bryson, “Obama on Call-Out Culture: ‘That’s Not Activism.’” The New York Times, October 2019. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/31/us/politics/obama-woke-cancel-culture.html

Shepherd, Katie, “Iowa reporter who found a viral star’s racist tweets slammed when critics find his own offensive posts.” Washington Post, September 2019. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2019/09/25/carson-king-viral-busch-light-star-old-iowa-reporter-tweets/

Ta, Linh, “Carson King reflects on new fame, the future after fundraiser for Iowa children’s hospital hits nearly $3M.” USA Today, October 2019. Available at: https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/ncaaf/2019/10/02/carson-king-fundraiser-ends-iowa-childrens-hospital/3840146002/

Authors:

Grace Leake, Alicia Armijo, & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
The UT Ethics Project/Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
December 4, 2019


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 without permission for classroom or educational uses. Please email us and let us know if you found them useful! For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative.

 

The Ethics of Anonymous Criticism in Political Journalism

CASE STUDY: The New York Times and the Unknown Trump Official

Case Study PDF| Additional Case Studies


anonymouscover

  Photo: Twelve Books

In September 2018 The New York Times made the decision to publish an anonymous op-ed from a senior official from President Donald Trump’s administration. The official, who ideologically identifies as conservative, wrote about the struggle to uphold and further Republican legislation and ideals while “thwarting Mr. Trump’s more misguided impulses until he is out of office.” A blatant critique of Trump’s leadership style, the piece serves as a warning to the American public as it also attempts to comfort them: “Americans should know that there are adults in the room. We fully recognize what is happening. And we are trying to do what’s right even when Donald Trump won’t” (“I Am Part of the Resistance,” 2018).

The op-ed was immediately met with criticism. President Trump called the unsigned op-ed “gutless,” news reporters from The Times expressed bewilderment at the editorial department’s decision to release an anonymous opinion piece, and social media bustled with chatter trying to decipher the writer’s identity. In the past, The Times op-ed department has granted anonymity to writers. However, these instances were when the writers were an undocumented immigrant or a Syrian refugee — people whose identity needed to be protected for their own safety (Calderon & Schwartz, 2018).

Criticism of the author reappeared when it was announced that the same senior Trump official would be releasing a 259-page book, titled A Warning. The book’s author is listed as “anonymous,” and the work is described as “an unprecedented behind-the-scenes portrait of the Trump presidency” (Rucker, 2019a). The Washington Post obtained the book ahead of its release, detailing revealing excerpts. In the book the anonymous author writes, “I have decided to publish this anonymously because this debate is not about me. It is about us. It is about how we want the presidency to reflect our country, and that is where the discussion should center. Some will call this ‘cowardice.’ My feelings are not hurt by the accusation. Nor am I unprepared to attach my name to criticism of President Trump. I may do so, in due course.” The Post also revealed the book does not go into detail about specific events within the administration, in an effort to protect the author’s identity. The book preview also reveals that the author does not hold back on his transparent criticisms of Trump, arguing “that Trump is incapable of leading the United States through a monumental international crisis” and “foreign adversaries see him as ‘a simplistic pushover’ who is susceptible to flattery and easily manipulated” (Rucker, 2019b).

After the announcement of the book’s release, arguments against the anonymous official again arose: journalists and media professionals questioned the ethics of granting a government official anonymity — not only for an op-ed piece but for a highly publicized book— and worried about how readers can judge the trustworthiness and veracity of the author if their identity is unknown. In response to the 2018 op-ed Ari Fleischer, press secretary for President George W. Bush, tweeted the following: “It’s impossible to evaluate how important it is without knowing how high up the author is. There are hundreds of people at the [White House] who think they’re ‘senior’ officials” (McBride, 2018). The suppression of specific details to protect the author’s identity also render such political criticisms difficult to confirm or argue against. There is also uncertainty over the status of information that the anonymous author could or should reveal. The United States Department of Justice sent a letter to the author’s publishing house, asking if the author had signed “any nondisclosure agreements while working for the government” (Stelter, 2019). The publishing house, however, said the Justice Department’s request was merely an attempt to out the identity of the author.

Journalists granting anonymity to protect a source’s identity within a news article is not a novel concept. However, news departments and opinion departments operate separately in their functions and goals. Op-ed pages of newspapers are where writers are allowed to employ their personal opinion complemented with heavy analysis of a topic and usually the weight of anonymity there doesn’t carry over the same as it would in a news story. Kelly McBride, a media ethics commentator who writes for the Poynter Institute, said about the anonymous op-ed, “If this had been a news story, we would have insisted on more details” (McBride, 2018).

Some see the senior Trump official’s anonymity as justified. When answering readers’ questions as to why The Times decided to publish the piece, op-ed editor James Dao said it was to give readers a unique perspective on the Trump presidency “of a conservative explaining why they felt that even if working for the Trump administration meant compromising some principles, it ultimately served the country if they could achieve some of the president’s policy objectives while helping resist some of his worst impulses” (“How the Anonymous Op-Ed Came to Be,” 2018). Representatives involved in the author’s book project have remained protective of the author’s identity (Rucker, 2019a). Matt Latimer, co-founder of the literary agency publishing the anonymous author’s book, said the book “was not written by the author lightly, or for the purpose of financial enrichment. It has been written as an act of conscience and duty” (Tapper, 2019).

Some have even made remarks that the op-ed author’s newest work will do more to help confirm unsubstantiated revelations from the Trump White House. Jack Shafer, senior media writer at POLITICO, gave the example of how the author’s op-ed spoke about the possibility of a group within the Trump cabinet invoking the 25th Amendment to invoke removal of the President. A couple of weeks later, reporters with The Times confirmed the formation of the group (Shafer, 2019). Shafer said, “This steady confirmation of the op-ed’s key points by the best journalists covering the Trump administration makes it easy to award A Warning a four-star, prepublication review and predict that it will serve as a revelatory text” (Shafer, 2019).

Despite such lauding of A Warning and explanations in defense of the author’s anonymity, ethical questions still remain: is it ethical for a person unwilling to share their identity to solicit attention from the public, and should media and literary gatekeepers grant anonymity to a senior Trump official about their function within the administration?

Discussion Questions:

  1. How might this situation have been different if The New York Times decided to do a news story on this Trump official, granting them anonymity, rather than letting the official write an op-ed?
  2. What are the pros and cons of the author remaining anonymous? Does their anonymity take away from or add more to their validity? Why or why not?
  3. What ethical role does The New York Times and the literary agency Javelin, representing the anonymous author, in this situation? In other words, what are their ethical responsibilities?
  4. If the author were to reveal their identity, how might the impact of their words change or stay the same?
  5. How might this situation further affect how the general public consumes political communication?

Further Information:

Alter, A. “Anonymous Trump Official Behind Times Op-Ed Is Writing a Book.” The New York Times, October 22, 2019. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/22/books/anonymous-op-ed-trump-book.html

Calderon, M. & Schwartz, J. “With anonymous op-ed, it’s Times vs. Times.” POLITICO, September 5, 2018. Available at: https://www.politico.com/story/2018/09/05/trump-anonymous-new-york-times-oped-809111

“How the Anonymous Op-Ed Came to Be.” The New York Times, September 8, 2018. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/08/reader-center/anonymous-op-ed-trump.html

“I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration.” The New York Times, September 5, 2018. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/05/opinion/trump-white-house-anonymous-resistance.html

McBride, K. “How the NYTimes’ anonymous op-ed may change journalism.” Poynter Institute, September 6, 2018. Available at: https://www.poynter.org/newsletters/2018/how-the-nytimes-anonymous-op-ed-may-change-journalism/

Rucker, P. “Anonymous author of Trump ‘resistance’ op-ed to publish a tell-all book.” The Washington Post, October 22, 2019a. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/anonymous-author-of-trump-resistance-op-ed-to-publish-a-tell-all-book/2019/10/22/b9ea2f42-f45a-11e9-ad8b-85e2aa00b5ce_story.html

Rucker, P. “Book by ‘Anonymous’ describes Trump as cruel, inept and a danger to the nation.” The Washington Post, November 7, 2019b. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/book-by-anonymous-describes-trump-as-cruel-inept-and-a-danger-to-the-nation/2019/11/07/b6b6c6f2-0150-11ea-8bab-0fc209e065a8_story.html

Shafer, J. “Why You’re Wrong to Hate the ‘Anonymous’ Book.” POLITICO, October 23, 2019. Available at: https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2019/10/23/anonymous-book-trump-official-read-229878

Stelter, B. “Anonymous anti-Trump book is already a hit and it’s not on shelves until next week.” CNN, November 12, 2019. Available at: https://www.cnn.com/2019/11/12/media/a-warning-anti-trump-preorder-sales/index.html

Tapper, J. “Anonymous Trump official who wrote New York Times op-ed has a book coming out.” CNN, October 22, 2019. Available at: https://www.cnn.com/2019/10/22/politics/anonymous-trump-official-book/index.html

Authors:

Allyson Waller & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
December 4, 2019

Image: Twelve Books


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 without permission for classroom or educational uses. Please email us and let us know if you found them useful! For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative.

 

#MeToo and Journalism Leadership

The Center for Media Engagement and Media Ethics Initiative Present:


Ethical Leadership in Newsrooms in the #MeToo Era:

A Panel Discussion

October 29, 2019 (Tuesday) ¦ 2:00PM-3:00PM  ¦ BMC 5.208


How did sexual harassment persist for so long in journalism, and what difference has the #MeToo movement made for those that run the media? What does ethical and effective leadership look like in newsrooms during the #MeToo era? This panel discussion features scholars from various fields in communication and media reflecting on the extent of the #MeToo movement in journalism, as well as its intersections with leadership in the modern media environment. Confirmed participants include:

Kathleen McElroy (Journalism, UT Austin)
Meme Drumwright (Advertising, UT Austin)
Kate West (Journalism, UT Austin)
Scott R. Stroud (Communication Studies, UT Austin)

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

Co-Sponsored by the School of Journalism, University of Texas at Austin, and the UT Ethics Project


And Nothing But the Truth

CASE STUDY: Accuracy and Effects in Reporting on War-Torn Congo

Case Study PDF | Additional Case Studies


Laura Heaton, a reporter for the NGO, traveled to Luvungi in 2011, a village in the Democratic Republic of the Congo that was known for atrocities such as mass rape that the community had endured in war-torn past decades.  These women had all been attacked by rebel troops surrounding the village as a further weapon in the violence.  Many articles had been written on the mass rape—the largest instance in the world, with 242 reported survivors over a period of four days—with detailed reports from the women on their experiences and trauma.

A couple of years after all the stories had been published, Heaton traveled back to Luvungi with the goal of speaking to the community about how things have improved (or not) since the last reports had been made about the crimes against this community.  When she arrived, she was greeted with villagers simply lining up to once again repeat their stories of their “systematic rape.” After listening to the stories, she sensed that something was wrong.  After looking for more information from the doctors of the village and some of the women themselves, Heaton arrived at a startling realization: although over 200 women had reported being survivors of rape, the actual numbers of rape victims seemed much lower.

Most of the women, Heaton learned, didn’t come forward with stories until after the many Non-Governmental Organizations arrived on the scene to help victims of the violence and rape.  As Heaton continued in her research and talked to more of the women (promising anonymity) she realized that most of them had lied in an attempt to get much-needed medical help from the NGOs.  The organizations gave more food and attention, she claimed, to women who simply said that they had survived rape.

After talking with the women and learning the truth, Heaton wrote and published an article titled “What Happened in Luvungi?” for Foreign Policy about her findings.   While she didn’t critique the amount of aid given to Luvungi—“no one suggests that giving millions of dollars to help this vulnerable, traumatized, population isn’t warranted”—Heaton did question the heavy emphasis on sexual violence in aid organizations (Heaton, 2013). She noted that this may have created the perception that women only get adequate support and welfare if they are victims of rape.  Caring for this community, she continued to visit the village periodically to stay up to date with the women and their experiences.

Since publishing the article, Heaton has received heated criticism about her story.  Eve Ensler, a playwright who opened a recovery center in the Congo in 2011, told Heaton that the article was unnecessary and will lead to new problems for the women of the Congo.  Ensler argued that by pointing out the lying of many of the women involved, the people who funded the recovery centers and foreign aid might not see this as a cause worth supporting any more.  Because some women lied, now all the women who did need help and who had been victims of rape would be hurt even more.  In another follow-up article posted on Foreign Policy, Micah Williams and Will Cragin disputed her facts and accused her of simply wanting to discredit rape victims.

Heaton felt very conflicted about her position.  As a reporter, she believed in telling the truth and nothing but the truth. Like many reporting on war-torn areas of Africa, she also felt that the west too often forgot the problems it helped to create on the continent with its policies and legacy of colonialism. Her article ostensibly focused on the problems with inflating rape numbers, and was not arguing that rape isn’t a problem in similar areas of Africa.  However, she herself began to question how much the truth matters in journalism if it conflicts the pursuing the general welfare, leading her to recently question if publishing her original article was the right thing to do as a journalist concerned about African communities (Warner, 2017).

Discussion Questions:

  1. What values are in conflict in Heaton’s account of the Luvungi situation and its reporting?
  2. What went wrong in the original reporting of the Luvungi atrocities? Did Heaton do the right thing in her reporting on the situation and past stories?
  3. Should Heaton have looked the other way on “correcting” the previous Luvungi stories? What if her corrections hurt donations and attention to this war-torn area?
  4. How should a journalist balance the consequences of their reporting for the social good versus the journalist duty to tell the truth? What if telling the truth mitigates the help a story could bring to a community?
  5. Do reporters have a duty to correct past reporting done by others, especially when it might undo helpful effects of those already published accounts?

Further Information:

Heaton, Laura. “What Happened in Luvungi.” Foreign Policy, 4 March 2013.
Available at: www.foreignpolicy.com/2013/03/04/what-happened-in-luvungi/

Warner, Gregory, and Fountain, Nick. producers. “The Congo We Listen To.”
Rough Translation, Episode 1, National Public Radio, 28 August 2017. Available at:
www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=545879897

Williams, Micah, and Cragin, Will. “Our Experience in Luvungi.” Foreign Policy, 5
March 2013. Available at: www.foreignpolicy.com/2013/03/05/our-experience-in-luvungi/

Authors:

Emma Matus & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
February 12, 2019

www.mediaethicsinitiative.org


Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the University of Texas at Austin. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom or educational uses. Please email us and let us know if you found them useful! For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative.

Media Freedom and the Middle East

The Center for Media Engagement and Media Ethics Initiative Present:


Media Freedom and the Middle East: Pursuing a Self-Regulatory Approach in Qatar

Dr. Amy Kristin Sanders

Associate Professor of Journalism
University of Texas at Austin

February 19 (Tuesday) ¦  3:30-4:30PM  ¦  BMC 5.208


51029404_2408295489401964_2027402130544918528_oLaws throughout the Middle East and North Africa dramatically limit freedom of expression by prohibiting journalists from engaging in basic newsgathering functions, including taking video and photos in public. Historically, journalists and the general public alike have faced potential criminal punishment for violation of these laws, which also often prohibit the publication of information deemed offensive, embarrassing or sensitive. Recently, however, Qatar has begun to explore ways to promote media freedom and Western investment in media through the initiation of the Qatar Media Hub. Organizations operating through the QMH would ascribe to a code of professional ethics as a means of regulation, potentially taking them outside the scope of traditional criminal law. During a recent consulting trip to the country, I urged government leaders to adopt this self-regulatory approach in lieu of traditional government regulation as a means of advancing free expression. My current work explores the benefits of ethical self-regulation as well as global approaches to media self-regulation in the hope of drafting a workable model for Qatar’s new initiative.

Dr. Amy Kristin Sanders is an award-winning former journalist, licensed attorney and associate professor. Before joining the faculty of The University of Texas at Austin, she taught for more than four years at Northwestern University’s campus in Doha, Qatar. Her research focuses on the intersection of law and new technology as it relates to media freedom. Specifically, she focuses on international and comparative media law and policy issues, including media freedom, Internet governance, social media and digital literacy. She has authored more than 20 scholarly articles in numerous law reviews and mass communication journals, and she is a co-author of the widely recognized casebook “First Amendment and the Fourth Estate: The Law of Mass Media.”

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


 

Does the Photo Fit the News?

CASE STUDY: The Ethics of Powerful Images in the Immigration Debate

Case Study PDF | Additional Case Studies


Sharon Lauricella, Ph.D., University of Ontario Institute of Technology

jm1

Photo: John Moore / Modified

In June 2018, discourse around immigration to the U.S. came to a peak when award-winning Getty Images photographer John Moore captured an image of a distraught, crying, two-year-old Honduran child beside her mother and a U.S. border agent. The image of the toddler, with her shoelaces removed and mouth agape in a wail, came to represent Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy toward undocumented immigrants; thousands of children, parents, and family members were separated at the U.S. border as a form of punishment for attempting to cross illegally.

The photo galvanized the public to contact both Republican and Democratic representatives with their objections, and also inspired people to donate to legal defense services for refugees. The emotional photograph had such a significant public impact that shortly after its publication, Trump issued an unusual retreat and ended the hardline policy of separating families.

time1

Photo: Time.com

Just over a week after the photo was taken, and subsequent to its viral spread, Time magazine’s cover of June 21, 2018 featured a photo illustration of the child, without her mother or the border agent, opposite an image of a menacing Trump staring down at her. The caption read, “Welcome to America.”

When Moore took the photo, it was unknown whether the mother, Sandra Sanchez, and her daughter, Yanela, would be separated during the immigration process. Subsequent to the publication of the original photo, it was discovered that the child and her mother were detained without being separated. Carlos Ruiz, the border patrol agent whose legs are in the original photo, told CBS news that upon Sanchez’s illegal crossing, he detained her and her daughter for a formal search, which took “less than two minutes.” Ruiz reported that as soon as the brief search was completed, Sanchez picked up her daughter, who immediately stopped crying.

The Trump administration harshly criticized Time, accusing it of running “fake news” given that the child in the photo illustration and her mother were not separated at the time that the photograph was taken, nor were they separated afterward. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich called for Time to apologize to Trump, and Press Secretary Sarah Sanders tweeted that Democrats and the media were guilty of exploiting the little girl to “push their agenda” to revise Trump’s hardline approach to immigration. Trump also weighed in, tweeting that the Democrats have no intentions of resolving this “decades old problem,” and that “we can pass great legislation [on immigration] after the Red Wave,” referring to the then upcoming elections in November 2018. Other news media outlets argued that printing the photo was a blunder on the part of Time, and that the intended effect of the image “oversold” the problem of families detained and separated at the border.

Time issued a correction which made clear that the child was not taken away from her mother by border agents. However, Time defended its decision to run the cover’s photo illustration, indicating that the image of the distraught child is representative of the thousands of immigrant children separated from their parents and of whom there are not any photographs. Time’s editor-in-chief, Edward Felsenthal, issued a statement arguing that the photo captured the terror of what was indeed happening at the border and in detainee centers:

The June 12 photograph of the 2-year-old Honduran girl became the most visible symbol of the ongoing immigration debate in America for a reason: Under the policy enforced by the administration, prior to its reversal this week, those who crossed the border illegally were criminally prosecuted, which in turn resulted in the separation of children and parents. Our cover and our reporting capture the stakes of this moment.

Felsenthal and those supporting publication of the cover argue that the image of the toddler on its cover was representative of immigration-related political discourse, and that the photo illustration conveyed contemporary treatment of undocumented immigrants. Alongside government-issued photographs of children in cage-like pens in detainee centers, the photo on the cover of Time served as a poignant representation of the difficulties experienced by undocumented immigrants.

Moore is an experienced photojournalist and had covered immigration issues previously. He expressed that he captured a raw and honest image that did much to publicize the terror experienced by many undocumented immigrants. He said he believes that his job as a photojournalist is to inform and report what is happening, and that when he took the photo, he feared that the child and her mother would be separated in the detainment process. Moore also argues that in his work, “it is important to humanize an issue that is often reported in statistics.” He issued no objections to the use of his photograph as it appeared on the Time cover.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Moore’s photo served to educate and galvanize the public in relation to immigration issues. Does the fact that the toddler was not separated from her mother matter, given that thousands of other children were?
  2. Viewers of the Time cover could assume that the toddler was separated from her mother while being detained at the U.S. border. Given that this was not the case, should Time have run the cover with the photo illustration featuring this child?
  3. What ethical values serve as the basis for photojournalism? What interests are often in conflict in photojournalism?
  4. What values are in conflict in the use of Moore’s photo? How might you best balance the conflicting interests if you were an editor?

Further Information:

Kirby, J. (2018, June 22). “Time’s crying girl photo controversy, explained.” Vox. Retrieved from https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2018/6/22/17494688/time-magazine-cover-crying-girl-photo-controversy-family-separation

Blake, A. (2018, June 22). “Time magazine’s major mistake on the crying-girl cover.” The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2018/06/22/time-magazines-major-screw-up-on-the-crying-girl-cover/

CBS News. (2018, June 22). “Crying girl in iconic image was never separated from mother, ICE says.” https://www.cbsnews.com/news/border-patrol-agent-involved-dramatic-photo-girl-crying-at-border-speaks-out/

Dwyer, C. (2018, June 22). “Crying toddler on widely shared Time cover was not separated from mother.” NPR. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2018/06/22/622611182/crying-toddler-on-widely-shared-time-cover-was-not-separated-from-mother

Holson, L. M. & Garcia, S. E. (2018, June 22). “She became a face of family separation at the border. But she’s still with her mother.” The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/22/us/immigration-toddler-trump-media.html

Time Staff. (21 June 2018). “The story behind Time’s Trump ‘Welcome to America’ cover.” Time. Retrieved from:  http://time.com/5317522/donald-trump-border-cover/

Schmidt, S. & Phillips, K. (2018, June 22). “The crying Honduran girl on the cover of Time was not separated from her mother.” The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2018/06/22/the-crying-honduran-girl-on-the-cover-of-time-was-not-separated-from-her-mother-father-says/


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

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