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Reporting on Sexual Assault in India

CASE STUDY: The Ongoing Debate over Victim Anonymity

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Photo: Media Ethics Initiative

In 2012, a young woman was brutally gang-raped by a group of five men on a bus in New Delhi, India. She and her male companion, who had been knocked unconscious, were then thrown from the moving bus and found on the side of the road. The extreme violence of the assault turned the case into an overnight firestorm both within the country and in the international press. Despite this publicity—which only increased when she died of her injuries—and the guilty conviction of all five men, the Indian press did not publish her name. Instead, they predominately referred to her as “Nirbhaya,” meaning fearless one, or as the Delhi braveheart. Her name was omitted from press coverage not because people did not know who she was—“the train of media persons and politicians to her home made clear almost every person in the vicinity … knew where she lived and what her real name was”—but because to publish her name would be against the law (Bhatnagar, 2016).

Section 228-A of the Indian Penal Code essentially prohibits anyone from publishing the name of a sexual assault victim—unless it is done as part of the criminal investigation, or is authorized in writing by the victim or by their family should the victim be deceased, a minor, or of “unsound mind”—under penalty of up to two years in prison (IBNLive, 2013). The Delhi case highlights the world of potential tensions and contradictions in the law. In fact, Shashi Tharoor, the Union Minister of State of Human Resources, wanted to name an anti-rape law after the Delhi victim, but could not do so for fear of punishment under Section 228-A (IBNLive, 2013). While the law is, of course, meant to protect victims of assault from further trauma, the ethical intent is not matched by practical outcomes and potentially reifies notions of shame directed toward victims.

The victim’s father eventually came forward and revealed her name to the foreign press because he and his wife “want[ed] the world to know her real name” because she “didn’t do anything wrong;” they hoped “revealing her name will give courage to other women who have survived these attacks” (Bhatnagar, 2016). However, because he did not give written authorization through the channels specified by the law, her identity was still artificially hidden, even while her name and face covered the internet. Thus, her mother reiterated that they wanted the victim’s name to be known stating, “whoever has suffered should not hide their name … everyone should know her as Jyoti Singh” (Bhatnagar, 2016).

The same penal code section also prohibits journalists from revealing any other potentially identifying information about victims of sexual assault. For example, the Times of India reported on an alleged assault of a young woman near Hauz Khas Village and revealed “the name of the neighborhood where the victim lives as well as what she does for a living and the area in which she works” (Khullar, 2017). Again, the protection of such personal information intends to keep victims from breaches of privacy and further violence. Yet, some say hiding the victims keeps police from being accountable when they fail to protect women. Swati Maliwal, chairperson of the Delhi Commission for Women, used a victim’s name in an attempt to shame the police. Maliwal echoed the Singhs saying, “why shud [sic] rape victim hide her identity? Shouldn’t rapists be hiding? Is it the shame of a victim that she was subjected to cruelty?” (Bhatnagar, 2016).

Still, there are those who argue that even if the victim, under Indian law, has waived their right to anonymity, reporters should still use their judgment to decide whether naming the victim is appropriate. Bob Steele, a journalism professor at DePauw University, argues that reporters should consider the resources available to victims and the counseling, guidance or other professional help they have received. Steele explains if he does not have this information “you won’t find their names in [my] column” (Khullar, 2017). Journalists in India are still struggling to find a way to balance interests in promoting public safety, holding authorities accountable, and protecting victim privacy.

Discussion Questions: 

  1. What values or interests are in conflict in this case?
  2. Does the practice of protecting the anonymity of sexual assault victims save them from shame or perpetuate it?
  3. Under what conditions, if any, should journalists publish the names of victims? What do they need to know to make that decision?
  4. Is the law prohibiting the press from naming victims a justified restriction of press freedom?
  5. Which of these considerations, if any, should be extended to the naming of alleged perpetrators of sexual assault? What might be different in these cases?

Further Information:

IBNLive, “What the law says on a rape victim’s identity.” News 18, January 2, 2013. Available at:

Amanat Khullar, “The Indian media needs to rethink how it reports rape.” Herald, February 23, 2017. Available at:

Gaurav Vivek Bhatnagar, “Disclosing the identity of rape victim remains a grey area in the justice system.” The Wire, July 28, 2016. Available at:


Dakota Park-Ozee & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
November 4, 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.

Beer Cans and Cancel Culture

CASE STUDY: The Ethics of the Carson King Case

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

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

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

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

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

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

Discussion Questions:

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

 Further Information:

Andrew, Scottie, and Zdanowicz, Christina, “He raised a million dollars for a hospital through beer money. Then his old racist tweets surfaced.” CNN, September 2019. Available at:

Hirschauer, John, “On the Firing of Aaron Calvin.” National Review, October 2019. Available at:

Reinstein, Julia, “The Reporter Fired In The ‘Busch Light Guy’ Scandal Said He Feels ‘Abandoned’ By The Des Moines Register.” BuzzFeed News, September 2019. Available at:

Reub, Emily S., and Taylor, Derrick Bryson, “Obama on Call-Out Culture: ‘That’s Not Activism.’” The New York Times, October 2019. Available at:

Shepherd, Katie, “Iowa reporter who found a viral star’s racist tweets slammed when critics find his own offensive posts.” Washington Post, September 2019. Available at:

Ta, Linh, “Carson King reflects on new fame, the future after fundraiser for Iowa children’s hospital hits nearly $3M.” USA Today, October 2019. Available at:


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

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


The Ethics of Anonymous Criticism in Political Journalism

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

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  Photo: Twelve Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Discussion Questions:

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

Further Information:

Alter, A. “Anonymous Trump Official Behind Times Op-Ed Is Writing a Book.” The New York Times, October 22, 2019. Available at:

Calderon, M. & Schwartz, J. “With anonymous op-ed, it’s Times vs. Times.” POLITICO, September 5, 2018. Available at:

“How the Anonymous Op-Ed Came to Be.” The New York Times, September 8, 2018. Available at:

“I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration.” The New York Times, September 5, 2018. Available at:

McBride, K. “How the NYTimes’ anonymous op-ed may change journalism.” Poynter Institute, September 6, 2018. Available at:

Rucker, P. “Anonymous author of Trump ‘resistance’ op-ed to publish a tell-all book.” The Washington Post, October 22, 2019a. Available at:

Rucker, P. “Book by ‘Anonymous’ describes Trump as cruel, inept and a danger to the nation.” The Washington Post, November 7, 2019b. Available at:

Shafer, J. “Why You’re Wrong to Hate the ‘Anonymous’ Book.” POLITICO, October 23, 2019. Available at:

Stelter, B. “Anonymous anti-Trump book is already a hit and it’s not on shelves until next week.” CNN, November 12, 2019. Available at:

Tapper, J. “Anonymous Trump official who wrote New York Times op-ed has a book coming out.” CNN, October 22, 2019. Available at:


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

Image: Twelve Books

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


#MeToo and Journalism Leadership

The Center for Media Engagement and Media Ethics Initiative Present:

Ethical Leadership in Newsrooms in the #MeToo Era:

A Panel Discussion

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

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

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

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

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

And Nothing But the Truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Discussion Questions:

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

Further Information:

Heaton, Laura. “What Happened in Luvungi.” Foreign Policy, 4 March 2013.
Available at:

Warner, Gregory, and Fountain, Nick. producers. “The Congo We Listen To.”
Rough Translation, Episode 1, National Public Radio, 28 August 2017. Available at:

Williams, Micah, and Cragin, Will. “Our Experience in Luvungi.” Foreign Policy, 5
March 2013. Available at:


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

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.

Entertaining Endorsements in Sports Journalism

CASE STUDY: The Ethics of Product Sponsorship in Sports Media

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Although it is generally rare for journalists to accept endorsement deals, the realm of televised sports journalism appears to be an exception. Erin Andrews, a sideline reporter for the 2011 Rose Bowl and a spokeswoman for Reebok, caused a stir in the sports world and renewed concerns regarding journalists endorsing products for pay. During her coverage of the Rose Bowl, Andrews reported that the players from one team were performing poorly because the new Nike Zoom Alpha Talon cleats they were wearing were causing them to slip on the field. Her remarks remained uncontroversial until two weeks later, when Reebok announced that Andrews would be “the first female featured in Reebok’s ZigTech campaign,” endorsing a shoe in direct competition with the Nike cleat.

It is unclear whether Andrews had struck a deal with Reebok prior to her comments about the Nike shoe, but the comments led some to question her credibility. Kelly McBride, a journalism professor at the Poynter Institute states: “Journalists can review products. But they can’t take money from a company to endorse them. That totally ruins their credibility… If those reporters were getting paid to endorse mp3 players or cholesterol drugs, no one in the audience would trust their judgment, because their independence would be compromised.” On the other hand, ESPN, the news outlet Andrews works for, notes that it is unlikely that she would have many opportunities to discuss the shoes in her sideline reporting role. Even if she does, they argue that as long as she discloses her relationship with Reebok it should not be an issue.

While most would agree that journalistic endorsements can be problematic in certain contexts, it is not clear whether televised sports casting should be an exception. Todd Rosenstiel, director of Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, says that disclosure is “the minimum standard,” but he compares sports reporting to political reporting. In the political context, journalists cannot accept money from parties or interest groups. Others, however, draw a line between hard journalism and the type of reporting Andrews engages in while covering sporting events, likening her more to an entertainer than a journalist.

In response to such concerns, ESPN instituted a new policy prohibiting reporters like Andrews from accepting endorsement deals. However, the policy is specific to reporters—not analysts. According to the policy, “… in assessing apparel, footwear and equipment, exceptions will be granted to players, coaches and administrators who are engaged as analysts and for whom such endorsements are part of the sports coverage/reporting landscape.”

Discussion Questions:

  1. Did Andrews do anything wrong? Why or why not?
  1. Would it matter if she had signed the Reebok deal before making the comments about the Nike shoes?
  1. Should ESPN cover the controversy surrounding Andrews? Why might one say they shouldn’t? If they do cover it, what would be the ethically best way to do so?
  1. Do endorsements hurt the credibility of sports reporters and analysts? Is it harmful enough for organizations like ESPN to forbid?

Further Information:

The Big Lead, “Erin Andrews has Another Controversy: Sneakers.” Available at:

Katie Thomas, “Andrews faces Questions about a Deal with Reebok.” New York Times, January 29, 2011. Available at:

Allan Brettman, “ESPN revises Endorsement Policy; Erin Andrews allowed to keep Reebok Deal through 2011.” Available at:


Danee Pye, Ph.D., & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
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 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.

Sacking Social Media in College Sports

CASE STUDY: The Ethics of College Athletes’ Use of Social Media

Case Study PDF | Additional Case Studies

“I don’t see how it could do any good for anybody.” Those were the words of Steve Spurrier, head football coach at the University of South Carolina, explaining his decision to ban his players from Twitter, a micro-blogging service that enables users to send short, public messages in real-time. Spurrier added: “A couple of guys put some sort of nasty stuff on there in the summer…so we said, ‘You don’t need to do that anymore. Let your girlfriend or pal down the street do all the tweeting or whatever it is.”

Spurrier’s decision was based in part on a June 2011 event involving a member of his team. A former player of Spurrier’s tweeted that Alshon Jeffery, a star wide receiver for the Gamecocks, was arrested after being involved in a bar fight. In fact, Jeffery was not involved in a fight or arrested at all. But Spurrier was forced to do damage control with the media.

There are plenty of examples of questionable social media use by college athletes. Texas lineman Buck Burnette posted a derogatory Facebook message after Barack Obama’s 2008 election victory (“All the hunters gather up, we have a [slur] in the White House.”) and was swiftly dismissed from the team. Will Hill, a football player at Florida, posted a series of vulgar tweets about drugs, sex and his dislike of university-provided meals, then later claimed: “Somehow my thing has been hacked.” North Carolina defensive lineman Marven Austin posted pictures of a luxury vacation in Miami; within weeks, the NCAA announced an investigation into North Carolina players—including Austin—receiving illegal benefits from agents. And four female soccer players at San Diego state were penalized for posting alcohol-related pictures on their Facebook accounts.

Spurrier has not been the only college coach to restrict his players from using Twitter. The first to do so was Boise State football coach Chris Petersen, who has been followed by coaches at programs such as Kansas, Pitt, Mississippi State, and Villanova. Some schools and programs take more moderate approaches. For example, Arizona’s athletic department requires all athletes to set their accounts to private. Some schools, like Missouri, include a clause in their student-athlete handbook about honor and dignity in Internet postings. Other programs allow their athletes to use social media but monitor their accounts with software that alerts administrators when certain key words show up in posts. One such software, UDiligence, monitors Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube accounts for numerous colleges across the country. Founder Kevin Long says the software is meant to protect the students and “provide a teaching moment, a mentoring moment to the student.”

Still, college coaches can benefit from the use of Twitter. Many coaches use social media to skirt recruiting rules that limit the amount of times they can text a recruit: “It’s another vehicle to exchange information,” said Santa Clara men’s basketball coach Kerry Keating. “Recruiting is all about communication and it’s another good communication device.” And as Bill Reiter, Fox Sports columnist, says: “Twitter is nothing more than a modern means of talking.” It seems that some coaches feel their players are talking too much.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Should athletes have unrestricted freedom of speech on social media sites? Why or why not?
  2. What values or interests are at stake here for athletes, coaches, and universities? Which values should take precedence in cases of conflict? Why?
  3. If some coaches are found to be misusing Twitter, should universities ban all future tweets from all their coaches? Why is (or isn’t) this comparable to the restrictions debated on student athletes on social media?
  4. Do you agree with the “creative” solutions of UDiligence and similar measures? What would you do differently if you were an administrator at one such a university?
  5. What ethical duties should college athletes think about while they are using social media? Are these different from the ethical ways non-athletes should use social media? Would you be able to write (and justify) an “Athlete’s Code of Ethics” for Tweeting or using Facebook?

Further Information:

Corazza, R. (2010). “A screen play for athletics departments.” Retrieved September 12, 2011. Available at:

McCulloch, W. (2009). “College coaches are using Twitter to reach recruits.” San Francisco Chronicle. May 07, 2009. Available at:

Rovell, D. (2011). “Coaches ban of Twitter proves college sports isn’t about education.” Retrieved September 10, 2011. Available at:

Ruppenthal, A. (2010, May 13). “College coaches finding ways to monitor athletes’ social networking activity.” Columbia Missourian. Available at:

Travis, C. (2009). “Time for colleges to ban Facebook?” Available at:


Andrew W. Ishak, Ph.D., & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin

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