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Reality TV and Real Ethics

CASE STUDY: Love Island and the Ethics of Relationships

Case Study PDF| Additional Case Studies

For those who don’t tune into reality TV, a compelling new series has been attracting attention and provoking debate about the ethics of televised relationships. The hit series, Love Island, focuses on a group of attractive, young singles who are flown to an isolated villa in Mallorca to find love. In just a matter of weeks, contestants will seek a significant other among their cohort. If that wasn’t challenging enough, the contestants must compete to stay in the game. If they successfully get through the series without being dumped or voted off, contestants are scrutinized by the audience who votes for their favorite couple at the end of the show (Martin, 2019). Some might find this show to be a recipe for disaster while others might find this to be nothing but a net gain for everyone involved—for both contestants and for viewers.


Many would argue that this show is ripe with demonstrable benefits for those who are daring enough to compete. Who wouldn’t enjoy a free holiday at a booze-filled villa in the Mediterranean surrounded by beautiful singles? It is basically a month-long slumber party for adults with a chance to win a £50,000 prize. More than that, many contestants reap the long-term benefits of massive social media followings that allow them to make a living off of sponsoring brands. As noted writer Jenny Éclair of The Independent affirms, “This could potentially be your magic golden Willy Wonka ticket to Lamborghini land” (Eclair, 2019). Without question, being a Love Island contestant is a sure-fire way to get your day in the spotlight and benefit financially to boot.

Fans of the hit series also contend that Love Island invites open discussion about what it means to be in a healthy relationship. As audiences get to know the contestants, they can begin to relate to them and see commonalities in their relationships. By watching the dramas on the show, audiences can self-reflect and explore questions about relationships that may not have occurred to them outside this medium. In fact, in a recent blog post, famed actress Lena Dunham shared her experience of indulging in the show. In doing so, she explored important questions about the complexities of romantic relationships. Like many of the contestants on the show, she found herself asking, “Can you love again after the hurt? What does partnership mean? And what does it mean to know someone if you don’t know yourself?” (Dunham, 2019). Raising such questions are valuable for coming to a better understanding of ourselves in our relationships.

Importantly, this show is an effective way to promote a national dialogue about relationships.  RAZZ Magazine writer, Charlotte Foster, explains that viewers can “point at the screen while saying ‘they should not treat another human being like this’” when they see psychological abuse” (RAZZ, 2018). By recognizing abuse, we’re in a better position to address it where it exists off-screen. Just as Lena Dunham was able to see the shortcomings of her relationships portrayed in the show, so too will millions of other Love Island viewers.

Even so, many would argue that Love Island may not be the most legitimate foundation for cultivating real-life healthy relationships. The show presents unhealthy examples of relationships and so cannot inform audiences about what is necessary to develop healthy ones. Since most viewers live such radically different lives from participants on the show, it is unlikely that they could come away from watching it with applicable lessons for their lives. As a case in point, the contestants are all incredibly fit, tan, and beautiful socialites in their twenties. The relationships that are represented are heteronormative and masculine-centric ones. Moreover, as Luanna de Abreu Coelho from RAZZ Magazine points out, “contestants are chosen and rejected by other islanders based almost entirely on appearance” (RAZZ, 2018). Of course, healthy relationships are not primarily motivated by physical attraction.

Another reason that many have found this show problematic is due to its unhealthy effects on the show’s contestants. The show achieves its supreme drama by effectively cutting them off from the outside world. The extreme isolation and the competitive nature of that social dynamic creates a unique and unnatural social environment. The show’s provocation of contestants under the watchful eye of cameras has recently led to serious public concerns about the contestants’ mental health. Following the suicides of two ex-contestants of Love Island, the English Parliament began an inquiry into the “production companies’ duty of care to participants, [asking] whether enough support is offered both during and after filming, and whether there is a need for further regulatory oversight in this area” (“Committee Announces,” 2019). After finishing their two-month stint in Mallorca, Love Island contestants come back to the real world as celebrities. However, that celebrity status quickly fades when the next stirring season of Love Island comes out. Contestants go from relative obscurity to fame and back again within a year. This instability would certainly be taxing on anyone’s mental health.

Love Island has captured the attention of millions of viewers in recent years. The show could spark much-needed discussion about relationships. At the same time, it is questionable whether this or any reality TV show can serve as a pedagogical tool for guiding viewers to cultivate healthy relationships.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Are creators of reality TV shows morally responsible for the psychological effects on their on-screen participants? Why or why not?
  2. What are the ethical problems with reality TV? What values are in conflict in this case study?
  3. Do the possible benefits of sparking a conversation about healthy relationships outweigh its possible harms for contestants? Explain your reasoning.
  4. What principles would you suggest to someone who wanted to make an ethical reality TV series about relationships?

 Further Information:

“Bafta TV Awards: Britain’s Got Talent, Love Island and Blue Planet II win.” BBC News, May 2018, Available at:

“Committee Announces Inquiry into Reality TV.” UK Parliament Website, May 2019, Available at:

Dunham, Lena, “Lena Dunham on Love Island: ‘I’m Asking the Same Question They Do – Can You Love after Hurt?'” The Guardian, July 2019, Available at:

Forrester, Charlotte, and Coelho, Luanna de Abreu. “It’s Debatable: The Ethics of Love Island.” RAZZ, July 2018, Available at:

Eclair, Jenny. “If You’re Thinking of Applying for Love Island, the Reality TV Suicide Rate Should Make You Think Again.” Independent, March 2019, Available at:

Martin, Laura. “When Is the Love Island 2019 Final Tonight? Start Time, How Long the Final Episode Is and Prize Money Explained.” INEWS, July 2019, Available at:


Nicholas Aufiero & Alicia Armijo
The UT Ethics Project/Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
December 5, 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 Media Criticism

The Media Ethics Initiative Presents:

Media Criticism in Turbulent Times: A Panel Discussion

April 25, 2018 ¦ Moody College of Communication ¦ University of Texas at Austin

Dr. Rod Hart / Communication Studies ¦ Dr. Trish Roberts-Miller / Rhetoric & Writing
Dr. Barry Brummett / Communication Studies ¦ Dr. Michael Butterworth / Communication Studies
Moderated by Dr. Scott Stroud / Communication Studies



Dying to Be Online

CASE STUDY: The Ethics of Digital Death on Social Media

Case Study PDF | Additional Case Studies


Social media has become a feature of the daily lives of many people. How will it feature in the time after their daily lives end? Most people don’t stop think about what happens to their online selves after they pass away. Who has the rights to the digital image or record of a person after they are dead? Social media platforms have been adapting to a growing presence of the online dead. When Facebook is alerted of a user death, they can freeze or “memorialize” the account. This serves two functions: first, it prevents anyone from hacking the account or gaining access to it. Second, it turns the profile into a memorial space which allows friends and family to publicly post their memories about the deceased individual.


Screencaptures from

Such memorialization prevents embarrassing “normal” online interactions with the account of the deceased such as the sending of friend requests or invitations to shared events. But are these online memorials without controversy? David Myles and Florence Millerand point out that norms have yet to be established when it comes to online mourning, which leads to controversy “regarding what constitute acceptable ways of using SNS [social network sites] when performing mourning activities online.” For example, many people may view the act of posting on a deceased person’s Facebook page as immoral or as disrespectful for close family and friends trying to privately grieve. At the same time, this digital realm of mourning could provide closure for a geographically-dispersed group of acquaintances and allow people to continue talking to their loved ones by honoring their legacy. As the Huffington Post notes, death surrounds us online, as “increasingly the announcements and subsequent mourning occur on social media.”

Facebook’s memorialization policy can be seen as a way to protect the privacy and dignity of the deceased. But the initiation of the memorialization process does not have to come from special agents such as one’s lawyers, parents, or relational partners. This feature of Facebook’s memorialization process came into focus in the aftermath of the tragic death of a 15-year-old German girl in 2015. The girl died when a train struck her at a Berlin railway station and a loyal friend quickly reported her death to Facebook, initiating the memorialization process. Only at a later point did the deceased girl’s parents wonder if her Facebook messages could answer questions about her death being a suicide spurred on by online bullying. The girl’s mother reported having her daughter’s login information, but she could not access the account because of its “memorialized” status. Facebook refused to budge from its policy governing locked memorial accounts, since the conversations people have on Facebook messenger are considered private and often involve third parties. Facebook stated that they were “making every effort to find a solution which helps the family at the same time as protecting the privacy of third parties who are also affected by this.” Revealing the daughter’s messages may prove the existence of online bullying, but it would surely reveal conversations between the girl and various parties—bullies and non-bullies—that all or some of the participants thought were private. The German court system eventually agreed that this concern for privacy was paramount, ruling that the parents “had no claim to access her details or chat history,” and that this decision was “based on weighing up inheritance laws drawn up almost 120 years ago.” The parent’s need to know (and to respond to any bullying) was judged as less important than upholding a predictable and general principle of privacy governing the exchange of messages between third parties that affected a vast majority of social media users.

Even though this tragic case is unusual, it highlights the challenges Facebook and its users are navigating as more and more Facebook users wind up dead. How do we deal with the fact that social media is, in some ways, quickly becoming a virtual graveyard? How do we deal with the digital remains of friends, loved ones, and strangers in a way that respects the living and the dead?

Discussion Questions: 

  1. What is the best way to treat the digital remains of those who have died? How is this optimal for the deceased—and those still living on social media?
  2. Do you agree with Facebook’s policy on not allowing access to messages of the deceased? If you disagree, how would you protect the privacy interests of third parties who corresponded with the deceased individual?
  3. If the parents of the deceased girl wanted access to her emails for a less pressing matter—perhaps to gather more material to remember her by—would this alter your stance on the strong privacy stance taken by Facebook concerning memorialized accounts?
  4. What do you want done to your social media accounts, if any, after you die? What ethical values do your choices emphasize?

Further Information:

Kate Connolly, “Parents lose Appeal over Access to Dead Girl’s Facebook Account.” The Guardian, May 31, 2017. Available at:

David Myles & Florence Millerand. “Mourning in a ‘Sociotechnically’ Acceptable Manner: A Facebook Case Study.” In: A. Hajek, C. Lohmeier, & C. Pentzold (eds) Memory in a Mediated World. 2016. Palgrave Macmillan, London.

Jaweed Kaleem, “Death on Facebook Now Common As ‘Dead Profiles’ create vast Virtual Cemetery.” The Huffington Post, December 6, 2017. Available at:


Anna Rose Isbell & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
University of Texas at Austin
April 12, 2018

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

The Real Ethics of Fake News

Did you miss the talk on “The Real Ethics of Fake News” by Dr. Scott R. Stroud (University of Texas at Austin), the Director of the Media Ethics Initiative? Check it out here–for real!


Media Criticism in Turbulent Times


Media Criticism in Turbulent Times: A Panel Discussion

April 25, 2018 (Wednesday) — 3:30-4:30pm — BMC 5.208

What is the role of media criticism in our turbulent political times? How should we react to the messages and myths our movies, news, and politicians attempt to sell to us? Is being “critical” a bad word for democratic citizens? In this exciting Media Ethics Initiative event, a panel of distinguished communication scholars will discuss the role of criticism and critics in navigating all the media we experience in our technological democracy. Drawing upon their work in rhetoric, communication studies, and media studies, our panelists will consider the limits of criticism as well as its importance in tumultuous times such as our present. Confirmed participants include:

Dr. Rod Hart / Communication Studies

Dr. Trish Roberts-Miller / Rhetoric & Writing

Dr. Barry Brummett / Communication Studies

Dr. Michael Butterworth / Communication Studies

Moderated by Dr. Scott Stroud / Communication Studies

Follow us on Facebook / Free and open to the public /

News Media and Democracy

The Media Ethics Initiative Presents:

Engaging Newsrooms in the Digital Age



Dr. Talia Stroud

Department of Communication Studies & the Center for Media Engagement

University of Texas at Austin

February 22  – 3:30-4:30PM – BMC 5.102

[Video of talk here]

Some think our democracy is in trouble, and that our news media hold the key to fixing our problems. How can our scholarship guide news media in such a role? Does what we do in our colleges and universities matter for improving newsrooms and how they contribute to society? In this talk, Dr. Talia Stroud will show how doing research that matters for democracy is not a new topic. Drawing on a variety of research projects conducted by the Center for Media Engagement, she will explore effective ways that research can help news media increase civility among commenters, increase citizen engagement with news stories, and more. Journalism can help sustain our democratic institutions and practices, but only if we guide it in an intelligent and reflective fashion.

Dr. Natalie (Talia) Stroud is the Director of the Center for Media Engagement and Associate Professor of Communication Studies and Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. Her book, Niche News (Oxford, 2011), examines likeminded political media use and the challenges it presents to democracy. The book received the 2012 Outstanding Book Award from the International Communication Association. Stroud previously worked at the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Her publications and grant-funded research cover a variety of topics related to citizen engagement in news and social media. Her research has appeared in Political CommunicationJournal of CommunicationPolitical BehaviorPublic Opinion QuarterlyJournal of Computer-Mediated Communication, and the International Journal of Public Opinion Research.

Free and open to all – Follow us on Facebook

Dr. Scott Stroud on the Media Ethics Initiative

By Jennifer Furlong / Photo: Gabby Lanza

In the world of Advertising and Public Relations, ethics plays a huge role in all the decisions made. The Media Ethics Initiative started by Dr. Scott R. Stroud (Communication Studies) aims to highlight the choices, consequences, and values involved in our communicative activities. We sat down with Dr. Stroud to talk about the Media Ethics Initiative, ethics in advertising and even that controversial Pepsi ad.

The Media Ethics Initiative started by Dr. Scott Stroud (Communication Studies) aims to highlight the choices, consequences, and values involved in our communicative activities.

In your own words, what is the Media Ethics Initiative?

I started the Media Ethics Initiative a year ago as a way to promote and publicize the great research in the Moody College of Communication being done on various aspects of media, communication and the various choices we make that matter. Moody has some of the best research and work on campus on issues of communication, technology, media practices, and other colleges simply don’t know about this. So, those are my two concerns – to promote and publicize our cutting-edge research.

Interesting, so would you say that is what inspired you to start this?

My inspiration occurred when I was a fellow at the Center for Study of Democratic Politics at Princeton University in 2014 – 2015, and I saw the thriving intellectual culture there at Princeton. You could get a free lunch every day of the week if you were willing to sit through a world-famous academic giving a talk, so part of what I wanted to do when I came back here was to contribute more to this type of environment at Moody and UT.

Right now, the Media Ethics Initiative focuses largely on events that bring great scholars from outside and within Moody and puts them in front of our faculty and students. Eventually, we’re going to start holding conferences on themes of pressing importance. For instance, next year I’d like to plan a conference on appropriation and media. Is the borrowing of cultural artifacts, cultural practices and cultural symbols ethical or right or wrong? These kinds of things I think are interesting.

I see that MEI is touching on topics from green advertising to athletes taking a knee. Why do you think it is important to discuss such a large array of topics?

The challenge is when you start talking about communication or media, ethics (meaning some kind of account on what makes the right thing the right thing to do) becomes really diversified. Advertising is going to have a whole slew of decisions that are made there that you may not have in organizational communication, and there’s going to be some overlap. This is part of the challenge of the Media Ethics Initiative. How do we do justice to all the separate realms that we have great scholars working in, and how do we find common ground among these areas?

I know for me personally a hot topic that comes up when discussing ethics is privacy and the collection of personally identifiable information (PII). How do you think that’s being handled currently, and how do you think that could be improved from an ethical standpoint?

Part of the challenge with Media Ethics is to honor the complexity of these situations. For instance, with PII, a part of that story on whether your use is acceptable or not is going to come down to how that data was gained. For example, if I purchase something and I enter in my information to get a 10% discount, there’s a sense that I knew what I was getting involved in. So, some of these questions of information privacy will come down to what I have done to enable this collection, and some of this will purely involve a company’s ability to just scrape data on me that I had no idea I was giving. There’s a kind of spectrum of issues that needs to be fleshed out, and I think that’s part of the idea scholars can help us with. I don’t look at my work or other scholars’ work as settling issues. The goal is can we help people understand what is happening, how technology is getting us into these problems and maybe to see promising ways out of these situations.

So ethics is this kind of gray area?

Yes. One thing that’s important to understand is ethics is different from legality. There are things that are illegal and you can see an ethical reason why we’re glad the laws are that way.  In other cases, there are things that are perfectly legal to do, perhaps some of these data gathering practices, but if you think about it using some of our best ethical theories, we’d say there’s an ethical problem with that practice. This is the approach that I use in my mind to separate ethics from legality. Often times they’re not overlapping. Things can be legal, but not the right thing to do if you’re trying to be the most moral, ethical person possible.

Interesting. I once had a conversation with an advertising professional on the topic of media ethics, and how you should act as an advertiser. One thing she mentioned was she believes advertisers should have to take an oath of ethics similar to the oath a doctor takes “to do no harm.” Is that something you would agree with, or even something you could see one day being implemented?

I don’t think it’s very practical for media ethics in general. Why? Because I don’t think there’s an agreement on a specific list of actions as the right thing to do. Every once in awhile you will get subfields agreeing on such a list of actions; for instance, advertisers may come together and say here’s what we think of this, these are the practices we are going to agree to follow, and we’re going to police ourselves and have some binding agreement on. That’s fine. I’m skeptical you’ll ever be able to come up with a code of ethics in general for media practitioners that you’ll always want to say that totally was right. The best I could hope for is to try to train people with habits of attention to moral situations.

When I get asked what the key to moral behavior and moral training is, it’s going to be imagination. It’s not a matter of finding the right piles of good and bad actions; the question is, do you have the imagination to see what the other party might have had a problem with in a moral situation? Or, why this advertisement in the past was so objectionable and how you can make a better one that suits your needs and needs of say, some minority group attending to that ad in the future, so they won’t object to it. This is what I’m kind of getting at with moral training – habits of attention and imagination.

So, it’s kind of just ds5ffunderstanding where you should fall on the line of right and wrong?

Yes, a lot of our situations that we count as moral or morally problematic are because of failures of imagination. “I just didn’t think of how this ad would be offensive to some group,” or “I didn’t think how someone would take this as manipulation.” Now there’s probably going to be cases where someone was trying to be evil and they should be called out on this, but often it’s just a failure of imagination or thinking about someone else besides yourself.

Do you think that could be the common issue with the Pepsi ad with Kendall Jenner and the recent Dove ad? Do you think it comes down to the lack of imagination?

I think a big part of it is. With the Pepsi ad, it seemed like they wanted to do something good and socially edifying, it’s just they didn’t accurately imagine the reaction of important stakeholders in the social battles being fought now and how they would react to such an ad. I think it’s a prime case of where someone tried to do the right thing, but it didn’t look like the right thing after the dust settled, at least gauged by its effects. How do you avoid this in the future? It’s got to be thinking more thoroughly through all the parties that you want to help and that would be a stakeholder in such a situation. The question is always going to be: have we trained ourselves in ways of thinking through these problems in general so that when a specific choice in advertising comes about, can we address its intricacies and effects fully?

With current generations extremely involved in the social-sphere, what positives and negatives do you see from an ethical standpoint?

Part of this question involves the technologies that enable people to take part in so many interactions. Now if you don’t like something you can tweet at American Airlines, you can tweet at United, or you can start a petition. Social media magnifies your ability to voice outrage or to find moral problems. Too often in the past, problematic practices would come to light through gatekeepers like The New York Times. Now, if you have enough of a Twitter following or if you can find the right storylines to contextualize your complaint, you can get more people attending to your grievance.

I think this is often a good thing, as a lot of bad practices and actions that maybe the media wasn’t paying attention to can come to light. On the other hand, you’ve got a notoriously long list in online activism of false positives, or allegedly immoral or harmful actions that were brought to light that turned out not to be true. This is part of the challenge facing the modern generation and their communicative choices. New media can be very quick, very decisive and very loud. These can enable both good things and bad things. The goal of media ethics is to help us maximize the former and minimize the latter qualities as much as possible.

They definitely are. So at the end of the day, if there was just one thing we could do to be just a little more ethical with our media use, what would that be?

I think the shortcut I would give many folks is to try to think if you were on the other side of this action, would you like it or not? Would you find it to be a reasonable action or not? It’s the failure of empathy that I think is often the issue in moral situations, so this is the simple test I would give people – try to think of the other side of your action, and maybe that will make you change it, make you explain that action better. It might change what you do or how you do it.

To learn more about the Media Ethics Initiative and to see scheduled speakers, visit the website and Facebook page.

Story originally posted here.

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