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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.

Disrupting Journalism Ethics

The Center for Media Engagement and Media Ethics Initiative Present:

Journalism Ethics amid Irrational Publics: Disrupt and Redesign

Dr. Stephen J. A. Ward

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

November 5, 2018


 


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

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

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


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Disrupting Journalism Ethics

The Center for Media Engagement and Media Ethics Initiative Present:


Journalism Ethics amid Irrational Publics: Disrupt and Redesign

Dr. Stephen J. A. Ward

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

November 5 (Monday)  ¦  3:00-4:30PM  ¦  BMC 5.208


Stephen J. A. WardHow can journalism ethics meet the new challenges to democracy in the era of fake news and real political problems? In this engaging talk, prominent media ethicist Stephen J. A. Ward argues that journalism ethics must be radically rethought to defend democracy against irrational publics, demagogues, and extreme populism. In an age of intolerance and global disinformation, Ward recommends an engaged journalism which is neither neutral nor partisan. He proposes guidelines for covering extremism as part of a “macro-resistance” by society to a toxic public sphere.

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

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.

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


 

No Comment

CASE STUDY: Online Comment Sections and Democratic Discourse

Case Study PDF| Additional Case Studies


The online world seems defined by interaction. We converse with known and unknown others on social media sites, blogs, and even at the bottom of stories on news sites. For journalism, this interaction is fairly new. In the early 2000s, only about eight to 30 percent of news sites had comment sections. About 10 years later, that number rose to 85 percent. As of 2010, Pew reported that 32% of Internet users have posted a comment on an online news article (Stroud et al., 2014). Newspapers and news websites realized the value of online comment sections: they can facilitate reader interaction and the sharing of opinions about journalistic content. But having the ability to comment doesn’t necessarily mean that readers will leave constructive or thoughtful comments; sites such as NPR, Popular Science, VICE News, MSN, and the Guardian decided to abandon comment sections altogether. Many cited the hateful, irrelevant, or crude content that so often populates comment sections as the primary reason for eliminating them on a news site.

In 2013, Popular Science got rid of their comment sections due to “trolls and spambots” who overwhelmed those who were actually “committed to fostering intellectual debate.” Some evidence seemed to show that uncivil comments can “skew a reader’s perception” or even change a reader’s mind altogether about the scientific information presented in the article. As Natalie Stroud and co-authors (2014) argue, “instead of being a forum for learning and discovery, comment sections can devolve into a dark cave of name-calling and ad hominin attacks.” Following Popular Science, NPR announced their decision to eliminate comment sections in 2016. They explained that the comment sections attached to their stories were “not providing a useful experience for the vast majority of [their] users” (Montgomery, 2016). Comments could be moderated, but this slows down discourse and increases costs; it also puts a news company in the uncomfortable position of judging and potentially censoring certain opinions. Eliminating comment sections avoids the worries and costs about selecting which comments are worthwhile to post, while avoiding the distractions and harms of uncivil, irrelevant, or hateful posts.

Instances such as these evoked both support and condemnation from those interested in creating more vibrant journalistic practices. Some worried that the hateful and uncivil actions of a small percentage of users was dictating the communication opportunities of the majority of news audiences. If the interaction of citizens through reason-based debate and discussion is vital for a democracy’s flourishing, removing the immediate space for such discussion on a specific newsworthy story is seen as problematic. Additionally, some may argue that the ability to put up with or tolerate disagreement—or in the worst case, hateful opinions—is an important skill for democratic citizens living in a community that often has to live with difference and disagreement among its members. Disabling the airing of such strong and controversial views may also discourage this habit in citizens, especially when connected with the pro-democratic institution of journalism.

Others applaud closing down of comment sections that have become a magnet for trolls seeking to provoke others to no real-world end. They point out the harm that giving a platform for extreme and hateful viewpoints creates; clearly, a democracy cannot be totally free of disagreement or hateful views, but should it place a spotlight on these by allowing any and all to comment on the news of the day? If relevant comments get overwhelmed by comments filled with irrelevant, false, or even derogatory content (often stoked by the ability to post anonymously), the real conversational value of comment sections disappears. Beyond this, newspapers worried about what a hostile and vitriolic comment section may do to their image as an objective news source.

The supporters of eliminating comment sections place the hope for civil discourse in other, more controlled, contexts. The cost to democratic community and the information-conveying function of the news is too high. Alternatively, supporters of comment sections see these areas of sometimes-wild discourse as a vital part of democracy. Perhaps one can clean up the comments—by using software that require individuals to log in with social media accounts—but these may raise the cost of risky or unpopular comments too high and stifle speech that would otherwise be uttered if protected by the veil of anonymity. How free should our discussions be on websites that offer us the news we need to be a flourishing democracy?

Discussion Questions:

  1. Are comment sections integral for the functioning of digital journalism in a democracy? Why or why not?
  2. Is eliminating comment sections the right decision when they become targets of trolling, hateful comments, irrelevant discussion, or personal attacks?
  3. How ought we to react to comments we judge as hateful or vile? Should we respond to them, ignore them, or find a way to get them removed from the discussion section?
  4. What are the ethical obligations of a citizen of a democratic state to others who hold differing views? What are the ethical obligations of news corporations and social media platforms to those who hold unpopular or even hateful views?

Further Information:

Scott Montgomery, “Beyond Comments: Finding Better Ways To Connect With You.” National Public Radio, August 17, 2016. Available at: https://www.npr.org/sections/npr-extra/2016/08/17/490208179/beyond-comments-finding-better-ways-to-connect-with-you

Suzanne LaBarre, “Why We’re Shutting Off Our Comments.” Popular Science, September 24, 2013. Available at: https://www.popsci.com/science/article/2013-09/why-were-shutting-our-comments

Clothilde Goujard, “Why news websites are closing their comments sections.” Medium: Global Editors Network, September 8, 2016. Available at: https://medium.com/global-editors-network/why-news-websites-are-closing-their-comments-sections-ea31139c469d

Maranda Jones, “Why Traditional Comment Sections Won’t Work in 2018.” SquareOffs, March 29, 2018. Available at: https://blog.squareoffs.com/why-traditional-comment-sections-wont-work-in-2018

Natalie Jomini Stroud, Ashley Muddiman, Joshua Scacco, Alex Curry, and Cynthia Peacock, “Journalist Involvement in Comment Sections.” The Engaging News Project, September 10, 2014. Available at: https://mediaengagement.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/ENP_Comments_Report.pdf

Authors:

Bailey Sebastian & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
August 31, 2018

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 use. Please email us and let us know if you found them useful! For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative.

Virtual Reality, Immersive Media, and Journalism

CASE STUDY: The Ethics of Facebook’s Virtual Trip to Puerto Rico

Case Study PDF | Additional Case Studies


fb vr cap

Screen capture from Facebook.com

Immersive media technologies increasingly provide opportunities for engagement with media texts in more expansive ways than traditional modes of media consumption. Virtual reality technologies open up new possibilities for journalists and news organizations that are looking to provide more powerful experiences to convey the news. However, the merging of journalism and virtual reality technologies create new ethical challenges for digital reporting. “Virtual reality” is an ambiguous term, but it most often denotes the use of 360-video, spherical videos, and computer-generated experiences. These technologies are valued for their immersive qualities and their ability to elicit greater empathy, emotion, and understanding from viewers for events happened outside of their everyday experience.

In October 2017, Facebook executive Mark Zuckerberg released a video showing the capabilities of Facebook’s virtual reality (VR) headset and a platform called “Facebook Spaces” by touring Puerto Rico in virtual reality after the devastation of Hurricane Maria. The presentation combined an immersive 360-video captured by National Public Radio (NPR) with Facebook’s virtual reality engine that allowed users to create avatars of themselves and virtually travel to and interact with new locations through a VR headset. The video provided an example of the potential applications of VR as a combination of reporting and journalism, and it highlighted the immersion that Facebook could provide to a large audience through Facebook Spaces.

Reaction to the video was not confined to expression of awe at the new technology. Many were outraged, criticizing Zuckerberg’s use of VR to capture the experience of the devastation, loss, and damage in Puerto Rico. Critics argued that even though VR is sold as “virtually” real, the immersive qualities that make the images seem so vivid were not equivalent to the painful reality of the situation. They claimed that the visceral response that VR induces only creates a pseudo-understanding of the reality of a situation or of the experiences of others; from an emotional—but simulated—experience, viewers are left feeling and knowing that they understand the lived experience of those affected by a real tragedy. Many argued that Zuckerberg’s declaration in the video that “it feels like we’re really here in Puerto Rico,” while praising the immersive experience that NPR’s 360-video created, is “so far off from the actual experience” of those actually in Puerto Rico (Kastrenakes, 2017). Another line of criticism focused on the ability of VR to evoke a powerful emotional response from viewers: immersive VR experiences can play “powerfully upon our emotions” and can impact users in a negative way by encouraging irrational or ineffective reactions because of this powerful emotional reaction (Bailenson, 2018). Many viewers critiqued Zuckerberg’s demonstration of the technology as evoking these powerful emotions only as a means of selling and promoting a Facebook product. By engaging in “voyeuristic tourism” and “using [this] tragedy” as a means of drawing attention to a service rather than the tragedy itself, many argue that the video manipulated users into further engagement with Facebook Spaces and VR, rather than to actually help with relief efforts in Puerto Rico (Kharpal, 2017). Thus, VR’s strength of evoking moving experiences was portrayed as its greatest weakness—it can easily become a way to distract people from real experiences or as a way of using very emotional, but simulated, experiences to provoke less-than-fully-rational responses.

Not all are discouraged by the prospects of VR in journalism, however. Those that did not sense any ethical problems with Zuckerberg’s use of VR technology and the 360-video captured by NPR argued that the enhanced visceral response of virtual reality is a powerful tool in evoking empathy and understanding. Barbara E. Allen argues that VR allows you to “see, and hear, and feel the human impact of a story” precisely by eliciting empathy from the powerful emotional reactions viewers have to being immersed inside of an event. In this manner, many argued that the immersive technologies used by Zuckerberg and NPR allowed for viewers to uphold the goals of journalism by helping audiences to understand more clearly the experiences of those in Puerto Rico. By imagining what it is like to be inside of an event through an interactive VR experience, Molly Swenson describes the journalistic payoff; viewers may realize the import of the story when they think “oh my God, what if I couldn’t take off this headset and this is my reality” (2013)? This moment of simulated experience triggers a powerful emotional response, one that may motivate audiences to action that affects positive change in a way that traditional journalism may not.

The controversy over VR in journalism orbits around the question of what parts of experience are valuable, and how we value emotions and information in journalism. Zuckerberg argued that “one of the most powerful features of VR is empathy” and that his goal was to show how VR can be effective in raising awareness and understanding of events happening in different parts of the world (Kharpal, 2017). But how important are emotions for a journalist’s quest to convey newsworthy information, and how might emotional reactions obfuscate or hinder the sort of rational decision making that journalists see as stemming from their work? What is the real journalistic value of immersive, but technologically created, VR experiences?

Discussion Questions:

  1. Was Facebook’s use of VR technologies in response to the disaster in Puerto Rico unethical? Why or why not?
  2. One can write a story full of information about a tragedy, but how important is it to convey the experience of what that tragedy is like? What more does a viewer know if they have all the information about Hurricane Maria’s destruction and they experienced the site of this disaster?
  3. Conveying information is a crucial goal of journalism, but how important is evoking emotion from one’s audience? What are the journalistic benefits of getting a strong emotional reaction from one’s audience?
  4. What might be the problems of journalists using VR technologies to create strong emotional reactions among their audience?
  5. When might the values of conveying information and creating strong emotional reactions come into conflict in journalistic practice? How might a journalist use VR technologies and balance these two concerns?

Further Information:

Allen, B. E. (n.d.). “Virtual Reality and Hurricane Katrina.” Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TC_9suXEswY

Bailenson, J. (2018, January 15). “How Virtual Reality Could Change the Journalism Industry.” PBS. Available at: https://www.pbs.org/newshour/economy/making-sense/how-virtual-reality-could-change-the-journalism-industry

Carson, E. (2015, November 25). “Immersive Journalism: What Virtual Reality Means for the Future of Storytelling and Empathy-Casting.” TechRepublic. Available at: https://www.techrepublic.com/article/immersive-journalism-what-virtual-reality-means-for-the-future-of-storytelling-and-empathy-casting/

Garling, C. (2015, November 03). “Virtual Reality, Empathy and the Next Journalism.” Wired.. Available at: https://www.wired.com/brandlab/2015/11/nonny-de-la-pena-virtual-reality-empathy-and-the-next-journalism/

Kastrenakes, J. (2017, October 09). “A Cartoon Mark Zuckerberg Toured Hurricane-Struck Puerto Rico in Virtual Reality.” The Verge. Available at: https://www.theverge.com/2017/10/9/16450346/zuckerberg-facebook-spaces-puerto-rico-virtual-reality-hurricane

Kharpal, A. (2017, October 10). “Mark Zuckerberg apologizes after Critics slam his ‘Magical’ Video of Puerto Rico Devastation.” CNBC. Available at: https://www.cnbc.com/2017/10/10/facebook-ceo-mark-zuckerberg-slammed-for-puerto-rico-vr-video.html

Authors:

Jason Head & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
August 15, 2018

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 use. Please email us and let us know if you found them useful! For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative.

Collateral Damage to the Truth

CASE STUDY: Reporting Casualties in Drone Strikes

Case Study PDF | Additional Case Studies


In a report released in July 2016, the Obama administration revealed the number of enemy combatants and civilians killed via drone strikes since 2009 in counter-terrorism efforts. This report came after President Obama signed an executive order with the intention of making the once-secret drone program more transparent and protective of citizens through the routine disclosure of civilian deaths. According to CBS News, the release claimed that 2,300 enemy combatants were killed and anywhere from 64 to 116 civilian deaths occurred as collateral damage. Controversy quickly circled around the U.S. government’s attempt at transparency in drone use. There was disagreement about the accuracy of the numbers reported. Critics also questioned whether the administration’s decision to disclose this information so soon after significantly expanding the counter-terrorism drone program was an attempt to mislead the public into thinking that they were being fully informed about drone warfare and its costs. Naureen Shah, an affiliate of the human rights organization Amnesty International, said “We’re going to be asking really hard questions about these numbers. They’re incredibly low for the number of people killed who are civilians.”

Watchdog groups suggest the U.S. government’s estimates of civilian death are exponentially lower than the real death toll. The Long War Journal, a blog run by the non-profit media organization Public Multimedia Incorporated, reported the civilian death toll at 207 from operations in Pakistan and Yemen alone. This was the lowest count provided by a watchdog groups. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism placed the death toll closer to “a maximum of 801 civilian deaths,” with a possible range of “anywhere from 492 to about 1,100 civilians killed by drone strikes since 2002.” Additionally, the government report excludes the numbers of casualties from Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, places where the U.S. has conducted thousands of drone operations. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism generated its numbers from both local and international journalists, field investigations, NGO investigators, court documents and leaked government files.

Speaking for the accuracy of the government report, some argue that government officials have access to information the public does not. The U.S. government asserts that they utilize refined methodologies in calculating post-strike numbers, and they have access to information that is generally unavailable to non-governmental organizations. This information influences both the motivations for carrying out a drone strike as well as the validity of the number of casualties reported from various sources. Many terrorists groups spread incorrect information about the U.S. as propaganda which can mislead watchdog groups’ statistics. The report from the Obama administration voices this worry, stating that “The U.S. Government may have reliable information that certain individuals are combatants, but are being counted as non-combatants by nongovernmental organizations.”

All of this poses a problem for news reporters who rely on the government to supply information necessary for their stories. A lack of clarity in how the government defines terms such as “civilian” or “enemy combatant” in their reports causes a discrepancy in the interpretation of the information journalists then relay to the public. According to this view, the public deserves the unspun data on the costs of certain policies, no matter how bracing it may be. Josh Ernest, a spokesperson for the White House, countered: “There are obviously limitations to transparency when it comes to matters as sensitive as this.” According to such a position, government officials have access to the most accurate and thorough information, and are best equipped to make sense of it and to wisely use it in protecting national interests. For instance, the government may be best positioned to evaluate how many innocent civilians are worth putting at risk for successful targeting of a combatant. Some ambiguity, or possibly opacity, in reporting causalities due to drone warfare would then seem to be the best way to protect national security. How are we to balance the needs of the press, the citizenry, and those conducting drone operations for national security in our journalistic information gathering and story writing?

Discussion Questions: 

  1. What are the values in conflict in the struggle over whether drone casualty figures are released?
  1. What are the concerns of the government, and what are the concerns of the press in reporting on drone casualties?
  1. Would there still be ethical worries if the government was obscuring or inflating only the combatant death estimates?
  1. Can you identify a creative way that the government can uphold some measure of transparency in its drone operations and still effectively pursue its military operations?

Further Information:

“Obama Administration Discloses Number of Civilian Deaths Caused by Drones.” CBS News, July 1, 2016. Available at: www.cbsnews.com/news/obama-administration-discloses-civilian-deaths-drones/

“White House Tally of Civilian Drone Deaths Raises ‘Hard Questions.’” CBS News, 5 July 2016, www.cbsnews.com/news/white-house-report-obama-administration-drones-civilian-casualties-raises-questions/

Director of National Intelligence. “Summary of Information regarding U.S. Counterterrorism Strikes outside Areas of Active Hostilities.” July 2016. Available at: https://www.dni.gov/files/documents/Newsroom/Press%20Releases/DNI+Release+on+CT+Strikes+Outside+Areas+of+Active+Hostilities.PDF

Jack Serle, “Obama Drone Casualty Numbers a Fraction of Those Recorded by the Bureau.” The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, July 1, 2016. Available at: www.thebureauinvestigates.com/stories/2016-07-01/obama-drone-casualty-numbers-a-fraction-of-those-recorded-by-the-bureau

Scott Shane, “Drone Strike Statistics Answer Few Questions, and Raise Many.” The New York Times, July 3, 2016. Available at: www.nytimes.com/2016/07/04/world/middleeast/ drone-strike-statistics-answer-few-questions-and-raise-many.html

Authors:

Sabrina Stoffels & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
University of Texas at Austin
April 27, 2018

www.mediaethicsinitiative.org


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