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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

Chiu, A. (2020, March 24). “‘The comedy routine America needs right now’: The Cuomo brothers return to prime time.” The Washington Post. Retrieved from

CNBC. (2020, April 2). “New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo holds a press conference on the coronavirus outbreak.” Retrieved from

CNN. (2020, May 20). “Chris Cuomo teases brother Andrew with giant test swab.” Retrieved from

Cuomo, C. [@ChrisCuomo). (2013, December 2). [Twitter moment]. Retrieved from

Jensen, E. (2016, February 26), “When is a friendship a conflict of interest?” NPR Public Editor. Retrieved from

NowThisNews. (2020, April 2). Best of the Cuomo brothers: America’s favorite TV family during Coronavirus. Retrieved from

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

The Ellen Show. (2020, April 20). “Trevor Noah is a Cuomosexual.” Retrieved from


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

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.


Producing Fear for the Greater Good?

CASE STUDY: The Ethics of Truth and Public Safety during the COVID-19 Pandemic

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Manny PachecoUnsplash

 Manny Pacheco / Unsplash / Modified

On December 31, 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) received reports of several cases of pneumonia of unknown origin from Wuhan in the Hubei Province of China. The causal agent would soon come to be known as COVID-19, a novel coronavirus previously undetected in humans, and spread around the world within a matter of weeks causing ailments such as fever, cough, breathing difficulties, and “in more severe cases pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure, [or] even death” (Mayo Clinic, 2020). By March 11, 2020, WHO officially classified the outbreak as a pandemic with 126,214 confirmed cases and 4,628 deaths.

Due to COVID-19’s rapidly developing nature and our limited knowledge of it, medical communities around the globe quickly issued recommendations for social distancing practices. Measures such as keeping 6 feet away from others, the closure of non-essential businesses, and self-quarantine at home have been urged as effective ways to “flatten the curve,” or to “slow the spread of the virus so there’s not a huge spike in illness all at once” (Godoy, 2020). In an interview with National Public Radio, Drew Harris, a population health researcher at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, explained: “If you think of our health care system as a subway car and it’s rush hour and everybody wants to get on the car at once, they start piling up at the door. They pile up on the platform. There’s just not enough room in the car to take care of everybody, to accommodate everybody. That’s the system that is overwhelmed. It just can’t handle it, and people wind up not getting services that they need” (Godoy, 2020).

However, in the face of the alarm raised many young and healthy Americans have been relatively unbothered. Since news of the virus has thus far been primarily focused on the dangers to the elderly and immunocompromised, many young adults have ignored the calls for social distancing and gone about life as usual. Regardless of the recommendations to stay home, there was still a surge in travelling during mid-to-late March 2020 as university students went on their regularly scheduled holiday trips. In fact, CBC News spoke with a number of young vacationers in Florida who appeared to be more upset about business closures than about the virus: “If I get corona, I get corona. At the end of the day I’m not gonna let it stop me from partying… We’ve been waiting for Miami spring break for a while. The bars and restaurants are closed but we’ll find ways to have fun” (CBC News, 2020). In one high-profile case, over 200 college students in from the University of Texas at Austin travelled to Cabo for spring break and 49 of them returned testing positive for the virus (Sullivan, 2020).

Despite the focus and assumptions of the virus’ effects on older adults, on March 18, 2020 the Center for Disease Control (CDC) COVID-19 Response Team released a Morbidity and Mortality Report which contained the claim that about 40% of patients known to have been hospitalized from the virus were between the ages of 20 and 54. This is a distressing statistic for all adults, but particularly for those young adults who may have previously believed they were not vulnerable. Many were tempted to use this statistic to persuade or scare youth into staying away from public places and gatherings. Two days after this report was issued, WHO director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus issued a grave warning urging young adults to stay home: “Data from many countries clearly show that people under 50 make up a significant portion of patients requiring hospitalization. I have a message for young people: You’re not invincible, this virus could put you in the hospital for weeks or even kill you” (WHO, 2020). For young adults who may have thought they were not in danger from the coronavirus, this information is unsettling. Not only have a significant number of severe cases come from their age group after all, but if the curve isn’t flattened and the health care system becomes overwhelmed, they might wonder: would they be able to receive medical attention if they get sick? As the situation appears more dire, young adults may become more fearful and anxious – perhaps even to an apocalyptic extreme.

While the virus is a serious concern for all ages, it is still important to consider the claims about youth risk in context: though the 40% figure does map accurately according to the data reported from the COVID-19 Tracking Project at the time, there is very limited testing among the general public, especially for younger adults. Taking this into account, there are probably significantly more people in this age group who have the virus than have been tested for it, relative to older adults. The few who have been tested are likely those who have shown symptoms, but it is still possible for people to contract the virus and never know it – due to an absence of serious symptoms, they never seek testing or medical care. Thus, the 40% of hospitalized COVID-19 cases who are 20-54 may very well over-represent the total number of people in that age range with COVID-19 who currently or will need hospitalization.

Should health authorities use this part of the report to persuade young adults to act in a way that promotes public safety even if they aren’t as much at risk as one way of interpreting this data suggests? Even if 20 to 54-year olds are severely underrepresented in the testing system and their risk of hospitalization is lower than other age groups, there’s still the chance that young asymptomatic carriers may unknowingly spread the virus to those older adults who are more at risk and likely to need hospitalization. On one hand, using not-entirely-baseless but nonetheless misleading statistics in fear appeals could lead 20-54-year olds to do the beneficial thing regarding public health. For example, rather than go about life as usual, such a use of statistics might scare them into taking seriously the recommended social distancing practices to help flatten the curve of COVID-19 and save more lives in the long run. On the other hand, causing undue fear could take a toll on individuals’ mental health which can lead to other social problems, as paranoia can result in behaviors like panic-buying and hoarding – leading to effects where others can’t get the care or supplies they need. And critics could even worry that spinning fearful statistics as actually indicating a special risk that young adults face is tantamount to lying—even if for a benefit social purpose. With lives on the line in a global pandemic, how much detail and nuance should persuasive health campaigns insist upon in promoting public health? 

Discussion Questions: 

  1. What are the central values in conflict in the decision to use de/contextualized or “spun” statistics?
  2. Is there, or should there be, a prioritization of health? For older or younger adults, or physical vs. mental health?
  3. Is there a creative way to communicate in a contextualized, truthful way so that young people will take seriously the calls for social distancing without causing undue fear?
  4. How much nuance or complexity should communication about important scientific issues contain, especially if it decreases the message’s persuasive value?

Further Information:

Center for Disease Control. (2020, March 20). “Severe Outcomes Among Patients with Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) – United States, February 12–March 16, 2020.” Center for Disease Control. Available at:

Coronavirus Cases: (n.d.). Available at:

The COVID Tracking Project. (n.d.). Available at:

Godoy, Maria. (2020, March 13). “Flattening A Pandemic’s Curve: Why Staying Home Now Can Save Lives.” National Public Radio. Available at:

Sullivan, Beth. (2020, April 8). “More Than 200 UT Students Traveled to Cabo San Lucas for Spring Break. Guess How Many Now Have Coronavirus.” Austin Chronicle. Available at:

World Health Organization. (2020, January 5). “Pneumonia of Unknown Cause – China.” World Health Organization. Available at:

World Health Organization. (2020, March 20). Live from WHO Headquarters – COVID-19 Daily Press Briefing 20 March 2020. [Video File]. Available at:


Kat Williams and Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
May 5, 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.


Can Artificial Intelligence Reprogram the Newsroom?

CASE STUDY: Trust, Transparency, and Ethics in Automated Journalism

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Could a computer program write engaging news stories? In a recent Technology Trends and Predictions report from Reuters, 78% of the 200 digital leaders, editors, and CEOs surveyed said investing in artificial intelligence (AI) technologies would help secure the future of journalism (Newman, 2018). Exploring these new methods of reporting, however, has introduced a wide array of unforeseen ethical concerns for those already struggling to understand the complex dynamics between human journalists and computational work. Implementing automated storytelling into the newsrooms presents journalists with questions of how to preserve and encourage accuracy and fairness in their reporting and transparency with the audiences they serve.


Artificial intelligence in the newsroom has progressed from an idea to a reality. In 1998, computer scientist Sung-Min Lee predicted the use of artificial intelligence in the newsroom whereby “robot agents” worked alongside, or sometimes in place of, human journalists (Latar, 2015). In 2010, Narrative Science became the first commercial venture to use artificial intelligence to turn data into narrative text. Automated Insights and others would follow after Narrative Science in bringing Lee’s “robot agent” in the newsroom to life through automated storytelling. While today’s newsrooms are using AI to streamline a variety of processes, from tracking breaking news, collecting and interpreting data, fact-checking online content, and even creating chatbots to suggest personalized content to users, the ability to automatically generate text and video stories has encouraged an industry-wide shift toward automated journalism, or “the process of using software or algorithms to automatically generate news stories without human intervention” (Graefe, 2016). Forbes, the New York Times, the Washington Post, ProPublica, and Bloomberg are just some of today’s newsrooms that use AI in their news reporting. The Heliograf, the Washington Post’s “in-house automated storytelling technology” is just one of many examples of how newsrooms are utilizing artificial intelligence to expand their coverage in beats like sports and finance that heavily rely on structured data, “allowing journalists to focus on in-depth reporting” (Gillespie, 2017).

Artificial intelligence has the potential to make journalism better for both those in the newsroom and the newsstand. Journalism think-tank Polis revealed in its 2019 Journalism AI Report that the main motivation for newsrooms to use artificial intelligence was to “help the public cope with a world of news overload and misinformation and to connect them in a convenient way to credible content that is relevant, useful and stimulating for their lives” (Beckett, 2019). Through automation, an incredible amount of news coverage can now be produced at a speed that was once unimaginable. The journalism industry’s AI pioneer, the Associated Press, began using Automated Insights’ Wordsmith program in 2014 to automatically generate corporate earnings reports, increasing their coverage from just 300 to 4,000 companies in one year alone (Hall, 2018).

As 20% of the time spent doing manual tasks has now been freed up by automation (Graefe, 2016), automated storytelling may also allow journalists to focus on areas that require more detailed work, such as investigative or explanatory journalism. In this way, automation in the reporting process may provide much-need assistance for newsrooms looking to expand their coverage amidst limited funding and small staffs (Grieco, 2019). Although these automated stories are said to have “far fewer errors” than human written news stories it is important to note that AI’s abilities are confined to the limitations set by its coders. As a direct product of human creators, even robots are prone to mistakes, and these inaccuracies can be disastrous. When an error in United Bots’ sports reporting algorithm changed 1-0 losses to 10-1, misleading headlines of a “humiliating loss for football club” were generated before being corrected by editors (Granger, 2019). Despite the speed and skill that automation brings to the reporting process, the need for human oversight remains. Automated storytelling cannot analyze society, initiate questioning of implied positions and judgements, nor can it provide deep understanding of complex issues. As Latar stated in 2015, “no robot journalist can become a guardian of democracy and human rights.”

Others might see hope in AI marching into newsrooms. Amidst concerns of fake news, misinformation, and polarization online, there is a growing cry among Americans struggling to trust a current news ecosystem which many perceive as greatly biased (Jones, 2018). Might AI hold a way to restore this missing trust? Founded in 2015, the tech start-up Knowhere News believes their AI could actually eliminate the bias that many connect to this lack of trust. After trending topics on the web are discovered, Knowhere News’ AI system collects data from thousands of news stories of various leanings and perspectives to create an “impartial” news article in under 60 seconds (DeGeurin, 2018). The aggregated and automated nature of this story formation holds out the hope of AI journalism being free of prejudices, limitations, or interests that may unduly affect a specific newsroom or reporter.

Even though AI may seem immune to certain sorts of conscious or unconscious bias affecting humans, critics argue that automated storytelling can still be subject to algorithmic bias. An unethical, biased algorithm was one of the top concerns relayed by respondents in the Polis report previously mentioned, as “bad use of data could lead to editorial mistakes such as inaccuracy or distortion and even discrimination against certain social groups or views” (Beckett, 2019). Bias seeps into algorithms in two main ways, according to the Harvard Business Review. First, algorithms can be trained to be biased due to the biases of its creator. For instance, Amazon’s hiring system was trained to favor words like “executed” and “captured” which were later found to be used more frequently by male applicants. The result was that Amazon’s AI unfairly favored and excluded applicants based on their sex. Second, a lack of diversity and limited representation within an algorithm’s training data, which teaches the system how to function, often results in faulty functioning in future applications. Apple’s facial recognition system has been criticized for failing to recognize darker skin tones once implemented into technologies used by large populations because of a supposed overrepresentation of white faces in the initial training data (Manyika, Silberg, & Presten, 2019).

Clearly, these AI agents do not garner the same sort of introspection in their decision-making processes, as seen by humans. This lack of understanding could be particularly challenging when collecting and interpreting data and ultimately lead to biased reporting. At Bloomberg, for example, journalists had to train the newsrooms’s automated company earnings reporting system, Cyborg, to avoid misleading data from companies who strategically “choose figures in an effort to garner a more favourable portrayal than the numbers warrant” (Peiser, 2019). To produce complete and truthful automated accounts, journalists must work to ensure that algorithms are feeding these narrative storytelling systems clean and accurate data.

Developments in AI technologies continue to expand at “a speed and complexity which makes it hard for politicians, regulators, and academics to keep up” and this lack of familiarity can invoke great concern amongst both journalists and news consumers (Newman, 2018). According to Polis, 60% of journalists from 71 news organizations across 32 countries currently using AI in their newsroom reported concerns about how AI would impact the nature of their work (Beckett, 2019). Uncertain of how to introduce these new technologies to the common consumer, many newsrooms have failed to attribute their automated stories to a clear author or program. This raises concerns regarding the responsibility of journalists to maintain transparency with readers. Should individuals consuming these AI stories have a right to know which stories were automatically generated and which were not? Some media ethicists argue that audiences should be informed of when bots are being used and where to turn for more information; however, author bylines should be held by those with “editorial authority,” a longstanding tool for accountability and follow up with curious readers (Prasad & McBride, 2016).

Whether or not automated journalism will better allow for modern newsrooms to connect with readers in greater quantities and of a higher quality is still an unfinished story. It is certain, however, that AI will take an increasingly prominent place in the newsrooms of the future. How can innovative newsrooms utilize these advanced programs in producing high quality journalistic work to better serve their audiences and balance the standards of journalistic practice that assumed a purely human form in the past?

Discussion Questions:

  1. What is the ethical role of journalism in society? Are human writers essential to that role, or could sophisticated programs fulfill it?
  2. How might the increased volume and speed of automated journalism’s news coverage impact the reporting process?
  3. What are the ethical responsibilities of journalists and editors if automated storytelling is used in their newsroom?
  4. Are AI programs more or less prone to error and bias, over the long run, compared to human journalists?
  5. Who should be held responsible when an algorithm produces stories that are thought to be discriminatory by some readers? How should journalists and editors address these criticisms?
  6. How transparent should newsrooms be in disclosing their AI use with readers?

Further Information:

Beckett, C. (2019, November). New powers, new responsibilities. A global survey of journalism and artificial intelligence. The London School of Economics and Political Science. Available at

DeGeurin, M. (2018, April 4). “A Startup Media Site Says AI Can Take Bias Out of News”. Vice. Available at 

Graefe, A. (2016, January 7).Guide to Automated Journalism”. Columbia Journalism Review. Available at

Granger, J. (2019, March 28). What happens when bots become editor? Available at:

Grieco, E. (2019, July 9). “U.S. newsroom employment has dropped by a quarter since 2008, with greatest decline at newspapers”. Pew Research Center. Available at

Jones, J. (2018, June 20). “Americans: Much Misinformation, Bias, Inaccuracy in News”. Gallup. Available at:

Latar, N. (2015, January). “The Robot Journalist in the Age of Social Physics: The End of Human Journalism?” The New World of Transitioned Media: Digital Realignment and Industry Transformation. Available at:

Manyika, J., Silberg, J., & Presten, B. (2019, October 25). “What Do We Do About the Biases in AI?” Harvard Business Review. Available at:

McBride, K. & Prasad, S. (2016, August 11). “Ask the ethicist: Should bots get a byline?” Poynter. Available at

Newman, N. (2018) Journalism, Media and Technology Trends and Predictions 2018. Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism & Google. Available at

Peiser, J. (2019, February 5). “The Rise of the Robot Reporter”. The New York Times. Available at

WashPostPR. (2017, September 1). “The Washington Post leverages automated storytelling to cover high school football”. The Washington Post. Available at


Chloe Young  & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
April 27, 2020

Image: The People Speak! / CC BY-NC 2.0

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)


Images of Death in the Media

CASE STUDY: Journalism and the Ethics of Using the Dead

Case Study PDF| Additional Case Studies

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:

“Code of Ethics,” National Press Photographers Association. Available at:

Farmer, Brit McCandless. “Why 60 Minutes aired Photos of Lynchings in Report by Oprah.” 60 Minutes Overtime, 27 April 2018, Available at:

Lewis, Helen. “How Newsrooms Handle Graphic Images of Violence.” Nieman Reports, 5 January 2016, Available at:

Waldman, Paul. “What the Parkland Students Wanted the World to See-But the Media Didn’t.” The American Prospect, 2018, Available at:

Walsh, Bryan, and TIME Photo. “Drowned Syrian Boy Alan Kurdi’s Story: Behind the Photo.” Time, Time, 29 December 2015, Available at:

Zuckerman, Michael. “Telling the Truth about American Terror.” Harvard Law Today, 4 May 2015, Available at:


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)


Censorship in Pakistan

CASE STUDY: Are Journalists Obligated to Speak Up?

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Bill Kerr / CC BY-SA 2.0

For many, there is little debate needed to reach the conclusion that Pakistan’s state sanctioned press intimidation is too harsh. One of the most pressing challenges to journalism ethics in Pakistan focuses on what the press is or is not obligated to do in response. Contemporary Pakistani laws combined with military and administrative aggression toward journalists have created a climate of self-censorship where journalists no longer act as watchdogs and informants for fear of reprisal. Self-censorship “is the worst kind of censorship, because it is done out of fear” said longtime Pakistani journalist, Ghazi Salauddin (Gannon, 2018). In response to the hostile media environment, journalists might persevere, seek greater independence, move online, or adapt to regulation, but each option is not without its own ethical considerations.


Cyril Almeida—assistant editor and columnist for Dawn—was recently named the International Press Institute’s 2019 World Press Freedom Hero for “his tenacious coverage” in reporting of the relationship between the state and militant groups and “tremendous resolve in tackling—at great risk to himself—deeply contentious issues that are nevertheless of central importance to Pakistan’s democracy” (Hashim, 2019). Almeida wrote a weekly column—discontinued in January—and interviewed an exiled former Prime Minister. As punishment for his coverage and refusal to back down from criticizing the government and military, Almeida faces treason charges, restrictions on his movement, and intimidation. Perseverance provided the citizenry with much needed information but cost Almeida much of his freedom.

On the other hand, press organizations may seek greater independence through financial divestment. Steven Butler from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) argues Pakistan’s pressure on journalists comes in part “though the owners of media properties” (Gannon, 2018). Mohammad Ziauddin of the Pakistan Press Foundation explains that many of the business people running Pakistani media are there “not to make money, not to serve the public, but to have clout” (Gannon, 2018). In the last year, there have been layoffs and programming cuts associated with “the worst financial crisis the media industry has seen since it was liberalized,” according to Afzal Butt of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (Ali, 2018). The crunch was caused by a drastic cut in government spending on media advertising because, as Saroop Ijaz of Human Rights Watch Pakistan explains, Pakistani news organizations “still rely heavily on government advertisements and subsidies” (Ali, 2018). The huge step back by the administration at once makes TV stations less beholden to government funds and thus government wishes but also makes them cash poor. As Butler asserts, “while reliance on government revenues is not a healthy model for press freedom, the sudden cutbacks have imposed extreme hardship on the media, which has had basically no time to adjust business models” (Gannon, 2018).

A third option for Pakistani journalists is to move online to less regulated and less capitally driven venues. Unfortunately, the government is cracking down on social media use by citizens but especially by journalists. They repeatedly ask companies like Twitter and Facebook to remove posts and pages and to suspend accounts. Journalist Taha Siddiqui moved to France after he was attacked but still cannot escape censorship from the Pakistani government. Reportedly, Twitter suspended his account twice in just three days because of “objectionable content that was in violation of Pakistani law” (Gannon, 2018). Several other journalists still in Pakistan, like Murtaza Solangi, have received similar notifications from Twitter that the government reported their tweets for violating the law. The problem of digital censorship is exacerbated by commonly-held impressions because, as highlighted by Asad Beyg of Media Matters for Democracy, “most accredited journalists bodies don’t recognize digital journalism as ‘real’ journalism” (Chaudry, 2018).

The CPJ advises news media owners and editors to strengthen security protocols and training, enhance self-regulation to instill confidence in accuracy and fairness, and universally condemn attacks, threats, and intimidation, potentially via professional guidelines. Almeida himself says the line of what is acceptable is drawn in terms of specificity; conflict between press and state occurs “if granular detail and specifics are reported on or commented on” (Hashim, 2019). Perhaps a solution then is to provide citizens with broad overviews of the issues and trust them to find more information for themselves, allowing journalists to serve as informants, generally, without risking censure or worse. But, if the press cannot provide details, who will? Yet, when, according to the CPJ, Pakistan’s military “restricts reporting by barring access, encouraging self-censorship through direct and indirect acts of intimidation, and even allegedly instigating violence against reporters” (Hashim, 2019), how much can we ask journalists to do?

Discussion Questions:

  1. Are journalists obligated to be the public watchdogs of governmental institutions even when it puts them at risk?
  2. Should social media companies participate in state censorship of journalism in adherence with national laws, or should they refuse such government control of information?
  3. What is the best way for journalists to fight state censorship of the press?
  4. Is there an ethical obligation for non-journalist citizens to intervene on behalf of the press? Put another way, is the reading public compelled to defend the freedoms of those institutions from which we benefit?
  5. What concerns might be raised by approaches that protect journalists by relying upon readers to gather more information outside of a vaguely-reported story?

Further Information:

Umer Ali, “The Pakistan government’s financial squeeze on journalism.” Columbia Journalism Review, December 20, 2018. Available at:

Suddaf Chaudry, “Pakistan: Censorship by stealth.” New Internationalist, November 15, 2018. Available at:

Kathy Gannon, “Pakistan’s journalists complain of increasing censorship.” Associated Press, December 26, 2018. Available at:

Asad Hashim, “Pakistan’s Cyril Almeida named IPI’s World Press Freedom Hero.” Al Jazeera, April 24, 2019. Available at:


Dakota Park-Ozee & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
October 15, 2019

This case is supported with funding from the South Asia Institute at the University of Texas at Austin. 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.

Changing Comments or Changing Minds?

CASE STUDY: Protesting Censorship in Pakistan through Algorithmic Alterations

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DTpic-600x129On April 17, 2016, the Daily Times—a major English-language newspaper in Pakistan—published an editorial on the nation’s controversial blasphemy law. The law, according to Human Rights Watch, carries a mandatory death penalty for blaspheming against Islam. The article was published in the wake of renewed controversy over Aasia Bibi, the first woman ever convicted and sentenced to death under the blasphemy law in November 2010 for an incident in 2009. All told, no person convicted of blasphemy has been executed, but 53 people have been killed in extra-judicial violence (Ijaz, 2016).

Given the controversial nature of the law and intentionally provocative publication of the editorial, the Daily Times anticipated a deluge of comments from online readers. The article was ideal for launching the “Free My Voice” campaign. Most contemporary news outlets have websites and the majority of story webpages include a comment feature where users can post feedback, opinions, or questions below a piece of reporting. While there are some sites that moderate comments—deleting those deemed inappropriate or editing for clarity—it is not common practice to meaningfully alter the reader’s message.  That is exactly what happened on the Daily Times editorial. The Daily Times teamed up with ad agency Grey Singapore and free speech organization ARTICLE 19 to launch the “Free My Voice” campaign as a way to protest restrictions on press liberty.

When users tried to comment on the blasphemy editorial, an algorithm automatically reversed the meaning of their post. For example, a comment written to say “the author is correct. The current laws in Pakistan are a distortion of Islam” would instead read “the author is wrong. The current laws in Pakistan aren’t a distortion of Islam” (Smith, 2016). No matter how many times a comment was typed, it would reverse meaning. Readers could not leave a comment that accurately reflected their position. Eventually, potential posters were “led to a landing page to sign a petition or donate toward the Free My Voice campaign” (Hicks, 2016).

According to the Daily Times, the “statements were altered, real-time, on the medium they would least expect censorship to happen—the comment box.” They furthered that the point of the program was to make commenters “experience censorship first-hand to make them feel the frustration of what it is like to lose [a] fundamental right” (Smith, 2016). In a story they published about the project, the Daily Times explained censorship is common in Pakistan; it is ranked as the fourth most dangerous country for journalists by the International Federation of Journalists. They also deem the blasphemy law one of the “country’s biggest threats to free speech” (Smith, 2016).

In addition to the blasphemy law, the project was a response to a newly approved Electronic Crimes Bill, which gave the Pakistani government greater power to block the spread of information, potentially arbitrarily. Tahmina Rahman, Regional Director for ARTICLE 19 Bangladesh and South Asia, expressed hope the “collaboration will demonstrate the pernicious nature of censorship that so often goes unseen but has untold consequences for society” (ARTICLE 19, 2016). Shehryar Taseer, the Daily Times publisher, justified the project saying “we all have to take a stance against censorship,” which is becoming “a global issue” (Smith, 2016).

The idea was to make citizens who might take their freedom of speech for granted experience the same censorship that stifles the press, motivating them to fight back on behalf of journalists. However, there is a potentially unacknowledged irony in censoring citizens engaged with the news to highlight the problem of censoring the press. Citizens are not being directly silenced—prevented from speaking—but censored through forced alteration of their words, words still attributed to them through a username and photo next to the posted comment. The project risks falling into the same ethical trap it claims to oppose, thus alienating citizens who might otherwise support them, especially in a climate where some comments or their engineered opposites may be politically controversial. The Daily Times project could put citizens in risky social or legal territory. “Free My Voice” potentially strips readers of their autonomy in an effort to regain journalistic integrity. While many would agree that the pursuit of a free press is admirable, some might worry about the ethical value of the tactics used by the Daily Times and its collaborators. To what extent can actual and unsuspecting readers be used in a news outlet’s effort to bring public attention to common, but sometimes unnoticed, curtailments of media freedom?

Discussion Questions:

  1. Does the “Free My Voice” discussion harmfully limit discussion of the blasphemy law? What are potential worries about using an algorithm to change the meaning of reader comments?
  2. Should press organizations like the Daily Times protest censorship so directly if it risks further restrictions of their freedoms and ability to provide the public with information?
  3. What obligation, if any, do citizens have to donate, sign petitions, or otherwise participate in protests by journalists?
  4. Is censoring, or forcefully altering, citizen comments an ethical way to critique government censorship?
  5. Do acts of protest have to have the consent of all involved, or all affected by the protest?

Further Information:

ARTICLE 19, “Pakistan: ARTICLE 19 and Daily Times bring censorship home for online readers.” ARTICLE 19, April 17, 2016. Available at:

Robin Hicks, “Agency’s algorithm flips sentiment of comments in article about Pakistan’s blasphemy law.” Mumbrella Asia, May 30, 2016. Available at:

Saroop Ijaz, “Facing the death penalty for blasphemy in Pakistan.” Human Rights Watch, October 12, 2016. Available at:

Sydney Smith, “Pakistani newspaper alters readers’ comments to make censorship point.” iMediaEthics, May 31, 2016. Available at:


Dakota Park-Ozee & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
February 20, 2020

This case is supported with funding from the South Asia Institute at the University of Texas at Austin. 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.

Press Freedom and Alternative Facts

The Center for Media Engagement and Media Ethics Initiative Present:

Press Freedom in the Age of Alternative Facts

David McCraw
Senior VP & Deputy General Counsel
The New York Times

March 13, 2020 (Friday) ¦ 1:30PM-2:30PM ¦ Belo Center for New Media (BMC) 5.208

David McCraw.. Earl WilsonWhat is the role of journalism and the press in a time when the truth is malleable, fake news is on the rise, and journalistic freedom is being put into question? How can our democratic society find real and sustainable solutions to our problems of disinformation, political polarization, and new media technologies?  In this talk, David McCraw will draw on his experiences as a lawyer and as the Deputy General Counsel for The New York Times to explore the ethical challenges awaiting journalists and the American public that arise at the intersection of law, ethics, and technology.

David McCraw is Deputy General Counsel of The New York Times Company and serves as the company’s principal newsroom lawyer. He is the author of the recent book “Truth in Our Times: Inside the Fight for Press Freedom in the Age of Alternative Facts,” a first-person account of the legal battles that helped shape The New York Times’s coverage of Donald Trump, Harvey Weinstein, conflicts abroad, and Washington’s divisive politics. He has been at The Times since 2002. He is a visiting lecturer at Harvard Law School and an adjunct professor at the NYU Law School. He has done pro bono work in support of free expression in Yemen, Russia, Montenegro, Bahrain, and other countries around the world.

This talk is co-sponsored by the LBJ School of Public Affairs and the UT Ethics Project. 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 on future events. This presentation will be introduced by Rebecca Taylor (UT Austin Ethics Project).

This event is free and open to the public.

Parking Information (nearest garages: SAG and TSG) can be found at:


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