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CASE STUDY: Accuracy and Effects in Reporting on War-Torn Congo
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).
- What values are in conflict in Heaton’s account of the Luvungi situation and its reporting?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- Do reporters have a duty to correct past reporting done by others, especially when it might undo helpful effects of those already published accounts?
Heaton, Laura. “What Happened in Luvungi.” Foreign Policy, 4 March 2013.
Available at: www.foreignpolicy.com/2013/03/04/what-happened-in-luvungi/
Warner, Gregory, and Fountain, Nick. producers. “The Congo We Listen To.”
Rough Translation, Episode 1, National Public Radio, 28 August 2017. Available at:
Williams, Micah, and Cragin, Will. “Our Experience in Luvungi.” Foreign Policy, 5
March 2013. Available at: www.foreignpolicy.com/2013/03/05/our-experience-in-luvungi/
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.
CASE STUDY: Reporting Casualties in Drone Strikes
In a report released in July 2016, the Obama administration revealed the number of enemy combatants and civilians killed via drone strikes since 2009 in counter-terrorism efforts. This report came after President Obama signed an executive order with the intention of making the once-secret drone program more transparent and protective of citizens through the routine disclosure of civilian deaths. According to CBS News, the release claimed that 2,300 enemy combatants were killed and anywhere from 64 to 116 civilian deaths occurred as collateral damage. Controversy quickly circled around the U.S. government’s attempt at transparency in drone use. There was disagreement about the accuracy of the numbers reported. Critics also questioned whether the administration’s decision to disclose this information so soon after significantly expanding the counter-terrorism drone program was an attempt to mislead the public into thinking that they were being fully informed about drone warfare and its costs. Naureen Shah, an affiliate of the human rights organization Amnesty International, said “We’re going to be asking really hard questions about these numbers. They’re incredibly low for the number of people killed who are civilians.”
Watchdog groups suggest the U.S. government’s estimates of civilian death are exponentially lower than the real death toll. The Long War Journal, a blog run by the non-profit media organization Public Multimedia Incorporated, reported the civilian death toll at 207 from operations in Pakistan and Yemen alone. This was the lowest count provided by a watchdog groups. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism placed the death toll closer to “a maximum of 801 civilian deaths,” with a possible range of “anywhere from 492 to about 1,100 civilians killed by drone strikes since 2002.” Additionally, the government report excludes the numbers of casualties from Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, places where the U.S. has conducted thousands of drone operations. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism generated its numbers from both local and international journalists, field investigations, NGO investigators, court documents and leaked government files.
Speaking for the accuracy of the government report, some argue that government officials have access to information the public does not. The U.S. government asserts that they utilize refined methodologies in calculating post-strike numbers, and they have access to information that is generally unavailable to non-governmental organizations. This information influences both the motivations for carrying out a drone strike as well as the validity of the number of casualties reported from various sources. Many terrorists groups spread incorrect information about the U.S. as propaganda which can mislead watchdog groups’ statistics. The report from the Obama administration voices this worry, stating that “The U.S. Government may have reliable information that certain individuals are combatants, but are being counted as non-combatants by nongovernmental organizations.”
All of this poses a problem for news reporters who rely on the government to supply information necessary for their stories. A lack of clarity in how the government defines terms such as “civilian” or “enemy combatant” in their reports causes a discrepancy in the interpretation of the information journalists then relay to the public. According to this view, the public deserves the unspun data on the costs of certain policies, no matter how bracing it may be. Josh Ernest, a spokesperson for the White House, countered: “There are obviously limitations to transparency when it comes to matters as sensitive as this.” According to such a position, government officials have access to the most accurate and thorough information, and are best equipped to make sense of it and to wisely use it in protecting national interests. For instance, the government may be best positioned to evaluate how many innocent civilians are worth putting at risk for successful targeting of a combatant. Some ambiguity, or possibly opacity, in reporting causalities due to drone warfare would then seem to be the best way to protect national security. How are we to balance the needs of the press, the citizenry, and those conducting drone operations for national security in our journalistic information gathering and story writing?
- What are the values in conflict in the struggle over whether drone casualty figures are released?
- What are the concerns of the government, and what are the concerns of the press in reporting on drone casualties?
- Would there still be ethical worries if the government was obscuring or inflating only the combatant death estimates?
- Can you identify a creative way that the government can uphold some measure of transparency in its drone operations and still effectively pursue its military operations?
“Obama Administration Discloses Number of Civilian Deaths Caused by Drones.” CBS News, July 1, 2016. Available at: www.cbsnews.com/news/obama-administration-discloses-civilian-deaths-drones/
“White House Tally of Civilian Drone Deaths Raises ‘Hard Questions.’” CBS News, 5 July 2016, www.cbsnews.com/news/white-house-report-obama-administration-drones-civilian-casualties-raises-questions/
Director of National Intelligence. “Summary of Information regarding U.S. Counterterrorism Strikes outside Areas of Active Hostilities.” July 2016. Available at: https://www.dni.gov/files/documents/Newsroom/Press%20Releases/DNI+Release+on+CT+Strikes+Outside+Areas+of+Active+Hostilities.PDF
Jack Serle, “Obama Drone Casualty Numbers a Fraction of Those Recorded by the Bureau.” The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, July 1, 2016. Available at: www.thebureauinvestigates.com/stories/2016-07-01/obama-drone-casualty-numbers-a-fraction-of-those-recorded-by-the-bureau
Scott Shane, “Drone Strike Statistics Answer Few Questions, and Raise Many.” The New York Times, July 3, 2016. Available at: www.nytimes.com/2016/07/04/world/middleeast/ drone-strike-statistics-answer-few-questions-and-raise-many.html
Sabrina Stoffels & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
University of Texas at Austin
April 27, 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.
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!
Watch the Media Ethics Initiative talk by Dr. Talia Stroud (University of Texas at Austin) on “Engaging Newsrooms in the Digital Age!” Find out more about her research at the Center for Media Engagement.
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
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
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 Communication, Journal of Communication, Political Behavior, Public Opinion Quarterly, Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, and the International Journal of Public Opinion Research.
Free and open to all – Follow us on Facebook
The Media Ethics Initiative and Center for Media Engagement Present:
The Real Ethics of Fake News
Dr. Scott R. Stroud
Associate Professor of Communication Studies, University of Texas at Austin
February 27 — 2-3:30PM — BMC 5.208
Is fighting fake news as simple as it seems to be? What ethical challenges will our efforts to stomp out fake news create? More and more attention is being directed at the impact of fake news on American democracy. Scholars in a range of fields are attempting to determine who is behind fake news propaganda efforts, what its effects are, and how to combat it using technological means. This study looks at the ethical issues raised in the fight against fake news. By developing an outline of a pragmatist media ethics, this article examines the complex ethical terrain of the seemingly simple problem of fake news. Additionally, the pragmatist approach to fake news also allows us to highlight the conflicting values and outcomes at stake in our attempts to conceptualize and eradicate this new ethical challenge in our social media environments. Such an imaginative engagement with the phenomenon of fake news on its own terms is an essential first step in diagnosing its ethical challenges and potential solutions.
Dr. Scott Stroud is the Director of the Media Ethics Initiative and an associate professor of communication studies at the University of Texas at Austin. His research covers a range of topics in communication and philosophy. He is the author of John Dewey and the Artful Life (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011), Kant and the Promise of Rhetoric (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2014), and A Practical Guide to Ethics: Living and Leading with Integrity (co-authored with Rita Manning, Westview Press, 2007). He has published work on a variety of topics in media ethics, including blogging ethics, revenge porn, and the online activism of Anonymous.
Free and open to the UT community and general public
For further information, contact Dr. Scott Stroud