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Is Incivility Ever Ethical?

The Center for Media Engagement and Media Ethics Initiative Present:


Is Incivility Ever Ethical?

Dr. Gina Masullo Chen

Assistant Professor of Journalism
University of Texas at Austin

October 16 (Tuesday)  ¦  3:30-4:30PM  ¦  BMC 5.208


The current debate over incivility in the public discourse often leaves out an important component – sometimes the most ethical choice is to speak out, even if some people view your speech as uncivil. The need to be civil at all costs can become a tool of the privileged to silence and symbolically annihilate the voices of those with less power in society, specifically women, people of color, or those from other marginalized groups. Media outlets can perpetuate this silencing by focusing on the “civility” – or lack thereof – of the message, rather than the content. Compounding this problem is the issue that people define what’s uncivil in varied ways – including everything from a raised voice to hate speech. UT Austin Assistant Professor Gina Masullo Chen will draw on potent examples from today’s headlines, including Colin Kaepernick’s “take-a-knee” protest during the national anthem to draw attention to racial injustice and some politicians’ refusal to speak to their angry constituents. Her argument is not that incivility is good. Rather, she asserts that sometimes the ethical cost of silence is greater than the normative threat to civil discourse from what some may perceive as incivility.

Dr. Gina Masullo Chen is an Assistant Professor in the School of Journalism and the Assistant Director of the Center for Media Engagement, both at the University of Texas at Austin. Her research focuses on the online conversation around the news and how it influences social, civic, and political engagement. She is the author of Online Incivility and Public Debate: Nasty Talk and co-editor of Scandal in a Digital Age. She is currently writing her third book, The New Town Hall: Why We Engage Personally with Politicians. She spent 20 years as a newspaper journalist before becoming a professor.

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


 

Swipe Right to Expose

CASE STUDY: Journalism, Privacy, and Digital Information

Case Study PDF | Additional Case Studies


In a world where LGBTQ people still often lack full protection and equal rights, it can be a challenge for someone to be public about their sexuality. Some have taken to dating apps such as Grindr, Tinder, and Bumble, which allow for a more secure way for people to chat and potentially meetup outside of cyberspace. On such apps, one’s dating profile can often be seen by anyone who is also using the app, illustrating how these services blur the line between private and public information.

Nico Hines, a straight and married reporter for news site, The Daily Beast, decided to report on the usage of dating apps during the 2016 Rio Olympics in the Olympic Village. Relying upon the public and revealing nature of profiles—at least to potential dates—Hines made profiles on different dating apps and used them to interact with a number of athletes. Most of his interactions were through the Grindr app which is a dating app for gay men. This app works through geotagging so that people can match up with others who are geographically near them. Profiles include information such as height, ethnicity, and age which can often be used to identify a person even if a full name isn’t given. He eventually wrote up his experiences in the article “The Other Olympic Sport in Rio: Swiping.”

To preserve the anonymity of the individuals with whom he was interacting, Hines did not use specific athletes’ names in his story. He did reveal details about those seeking dates including their physical features, the sport they were competing in, and their home country.  Readers and critics found that it was relatively easy to identify which athletes he was talking about using the information he provided. Since many of these athletes were not openly identified as LGBTQ, critics argued that he was “potentially outing” many of the athletes by describing them in the course of his story. Amplifying this concern was the fact that in some of the home countries of men who were potentially outed, it was dangerous or illegal to be openly gay.

In his defense, some pointed out that Hines didn’t intend to out or harm specific vulnerable individuals in the course of his story about the social lives of Olympic Athletes. His published account didn’t include the names of any male athletes he interacted with on Grindr, and he only named some of the straight women who he found on the Tinder app. The Daily Beast’s Editor-in-chief, John Avalon, stated that Hines didn’t mean to focus mainly on the Grindr app but since he “had many more responses on Grindr than apps that cater mostly to straight people,” Hines decided to write about that app. When Hines interacted with the athletes on the various dating apps, he didn’t lie about who he was and, as Avalon noted, Hines “immediately admitted that he was a journalist whenever he was asked who he was.”

The controversy eventually consumed Hines’ published story. After the wave of criticism crested, The Daily Beast first removed names and descriptions of the athletes in the article. But by the end of the day, the news site had completely removed the article with Avalon replacing it with an editor’s note that concluded: “Our initial reaction was that the entire removal of the piece was not necessary. We were wrong. We’re sorry.” Regardless of the decisions reached by this news site, difficult questions remain about what kinds of stories—and methods—are ethically allowed in the brave new world of digital journalism.

Discussion Questions: 

  1. What are the ethical values or interests at stake in the debate over the story authored by Hines?
  2. Hines tried to preserve the anonymity of those he was writing about. How could he have done more for the subjects of his story, while still doing justice to the story he wanted to report on?
  3. There are strong reasons why journalists should ethically and legally be allowed to use publicly-available information in their stories. Is the information shared through dating apps public information?
  4. How does Hines’ use of dating profile information differ, if at all, from long-standing practices of investigative or undercover journalism?

Further Information:

Frank Pallotta & Rob McLean, “Daily Beast removes Olympics Grindr article after backlash.” CNN, August 12, 2016. Available at: http://money.cnn.com/2016/08/12/ media/daily-beast-olympics-article-removal/index.html

John Avalon, “A Note from the Editors.” The Daily Beast, August 11, 2016. Available at: https://www.thedailybeast.com/a-note-from-the-editors

Curtis M. Wong, “Straight Writer Blasted For ‘Outing’ Olympians In Daily Beast Piece.” Huffington Post, August 11, 2016. Available at: https://www.huffingtonpost. com/entry/daily-beast-grindr-article_us_57aca088e4b0db3be07d6581

Authors:

Bailey Sebastian & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
University of Texas at Austin
April 24, 2018

www.mediaethicsinitiative.org


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

Anthems and Activism in the NFL

Mediating the Politics of the NFL

Did you miss the exciting Media Ethics Initiative research talk on the controversial NFL national anthem protests? Or did you try to catch the talk, but couldn’t find a free seat in the packed room? Or perhaps you want to relive the excitement once more? Now you can watch Dr. Michael Butterworth (UT Austin) discuss the ethical issues in the recent NFL anthem protests and the media coverage they evoked on our Youtube channel.

Anthems and Activism in the NFL

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The Media Ethics Initiative Presents:

Anthems and Activism: Mediating the Politics of the NFL

Dr. Michael L. Butterworth

University of Texas at Austin

October 11, 2017 — 1:00-2:00pm — CMA 5.136

In recent months, professional football players have used the national anthem ceremony as a stage for political protest. Such moments of activism have sparked significant conversation and controversy, and they have also received substantial media coverage. This talk examines the ethical and historical context for political protest in sports, considers the relationship between the NFL and sports media, and speculates about the future of activism during the national anthem and beyond.

Dr. Michael L. Butterworth is a Professor in the Department of Communication Studies and Director of the Center for Sports Communication & Media at the University of Texas at Austin. His research explores the connections between rhetoric, politics, and sport, with particular interests in national identity, militarism, and public memory. He is the author of Baseball and Rhetorics of Purity: The National Pastime and American Identity during the War on Terror, co-author of Communication and Sport: Surveying the Field, and editor of Sport and Militarism: Contemporary Global Perspectives.

Free and open to the UT community and general public

For further information, contact Dr. Scott Stroud

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[Video of Talk here]

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