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Archive for the ‘ethics’ Category

The News Media Bubble

Posted by prof e on April 26, 2017

Politico, a left-leaning web magazine, just published an essay about the bubble in which journalists live. According to the authors the bubble is not just geographic, but also ideological. According to Politico, the media bubble served to insulate journalists from the people and issues that ultimately led to the election of Donald Trump. For most journalists it was not an issue of whether Hillary Clinton would win, but by how great a margin. Was it perhaps because they didn’t understand what was happening across the country? According to Politico,

Nearly 90 percent of all internet publishing employees work in a county where Clinton won, and 75 percent of them work in a county that she won by more than 30 percentage points.

Another essay, this one by pollster and statistician Nate Silver, (the golden boy of recent electoral race coverage), makes the argument that the national media were the victims of group think leading up to the 2016 Presidential election. Silver’s essay spends some time reviewing a premise introduced by James Surowiecki in his book The Wisdom of Crowds. Surowiecki’s thesis is that networking theory, applied to information flow, can yield superior results given certain conditions. Whether the crowd is professional journalists or citizen journalists, the idea is that collective wisdom is superior to the wisdom of any one member of the group. That is fine if the conditions are met. If not, group-think, an idea popularized in the 1970s by Irving Janis, leads to poor judgement and low-quality decision-making. According to Janis,

the more amiability and esprit de corps there is among the members of a policy-making ingroup, the greater the danger that independent critical thinking will be replaced by groupthink, which is likely to result in irrational and dehumanizing actions directed against outgroups. (https://web.archive.org/web/20100401033524/http://apps.olin.wustl.edu/faculty/macdonald/GroupThink.pdf)

Both articles point to a serious problem for national media coverage of politics. More than ever, national journalists are more highly educated, more liberal, less religious, richer, younger, more urban, and much more likely to live in communities with like-minded neighbors. The liberal, coastal, elite journalist is becoming the norm when it comes to national media coverage, and that is a problem for the future of the industry. Some have argued that this trend has led to an erosion of trust and created a credibility vacuum where fake news and lies can thrive.

This was not always the case. Journalists have not always been so out of touch with the audience that they serve. The failure of local and regional newspapers is a significant contributing factor. According to Politico, labor statistics are a clear indication of the trend.

In late 2015, during Barack Obama’s second term, these two trend lines—jobs in newspapers, and jobs in internet publishing—finally crossed. For the first time, the number of workers in internet publishing exceeded the number of their newspaper brethren. Internet publishers are now adding workers at nearly twice the rate newspaper publishers are losing them.

As news shifts from local newspapers and local reporters who reflected their communities’ values, to national news organizations located in major metropolitan centers on the coasts, it has becoming increasingly likely that the news that we’re consuming on social media and television is out of touch with mainstream values and main street sensibilities.

 

Another theory that may be useful to understand what is happening is Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann’s Spiral of Silence theory. According to this theory, unpopular ideas are pushed to the margins, where they slowly lose favor and spiral downward to eventual silence. We’re fine with this if it’s a bad idea, one that does not deserve to be sustained. But what about when an unpopular idea is silenced because those in authority don’t want to give it a hearing? What about unpopular ideas that are banished to the margins because groupthink has created a hostile climate for those kinds of ideas? What if the lack of ideological diversity in our newsrooms creates an echo chamber that drowns out dissenting voices?

Conservatives have consistently accused the national media of having a liberal bias, and that appears to be supported by these essays. But I’ll close with this quote from the Politico article…

Resist—if you can—the conservative reflex to absorb this data and conclude that the media deliberately twists the news in favor of Democrats. Instead, take it the way a social scientist would take it: The people who report, edit, produce and publish news can’t help being affected—deeply affected—by the environment around them. Former New York Times public editor Daniel Okrent got at this when he analyzed the decidedly liberal bent of his newspaper’s staff in a 2004 column that rewards rereading today. The “heart, mind, and habits” of the Times, he wrote, cannot be divorced from the ethos of the cosmopolitan city where it is produced. On such subjects as abortion, gay rights, gun control and environmental regulation, the Times’ news reporting is a pretty good reflection of its region’s dominant predisposition. And yes, a Times-ian ethos flourishes in all of internet publishing’s major cities—Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Seattle, San Francisco and Washington. The Times thinks of itself as a centrist national newspaper, but it’s more accurate to say its politics are perfectly centered on the slices of America that look and think the most like Manhattan.

Something akin to the Times ethos thrives in most major national newsrooms found on the Clinton coasts—CNN, CBS, the Washington Post, BuzzFeed, Politico and the rest. Their reporters, an admirable lot, can parachute into Appalachia or the rural Midwest on a monthly basis and still not shake their provincial sensibilities: Reporters tote their bubbles with them.

 

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Survivors and Victims of Reality TV’s Deception

Posted by prof e on April 15, 2017

Reality TV is constantly inventing new ways to shock its viewers. This past week on Survivor it was the outing of transgender contestant Zach Smith by gay competitor Jeff Varner. In a side story (in real life), Varner was subsequently fired from his job as a real estate agent by a boss who was quoted as saying that Varner is “in the middle of a news story that we don’t want anything to do with.”

The uproar on social media was immediate and unforgiving. Some of the harshest criticism was for Varner and his use of the word “deception” to describe Smith’s secret. Others were harshly critical of CBS for deciding to include the scene after months of deliberation.

But it turns out that CBS and Smith worked closely to prepare for the episode’s airing this past week.

According to the New York Times,

From the moment the episode was filmed nearly 10 months ago, the “Survivor” producers had been consulting with Mr. Smith about how best to handle airing the incident, which included a strategic media rollout and working with Glaad, the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights group, before the episode’s broadcast.

Jeff Probst, the show’s host and executive producer called it “one of the most raw and painful studies of human behavior that has ever happened on ‘Survivor.’ ”

But I’m left with a question that goes to the heart of reality TV as a programming genre. For the Survivor-type shows where contestants compete for a grand prize, deception, betrayal, and backstabbing are not only allowed, they are encouraged. Deception is how you play the game on reality TV…and, unfortunately, increasingly so in the world of politics and international relations. But I digress.

One viewer took to Twitter refusing to accept Varner’s apology saying, “Apologies only have meaning when they are expressing sincere regret for a mistake. What Varner did was no mistake. He intentionally humiliated Zeke and tried to justify it.” Exactly! That is how you play the game on Survivor. The drama created by conflict is why most people watch, and have been watching Survivor for more than 13 years. The business model for Survivor and CBS is based on people doing outrageous things in front of cameras and microphones. CBS will cash that check over and over again…or at least as long as the audience shows up asking for more.

But we’re still left with the question; why did this tactic by Varner elicit such a strong response from viewers? Just like the collective judgement directed at United Airlines, the moral outrage targeting Varner and CBS is indicative of society’s desire for justice. We know when something is over the line. But whose line is it, and where should it be drawn?

Some of the ugliest disagreements (on social media and elsewhere) are between people who want to draw the line in a different place than where others think it should be drawn.

Posted in ethics, media industry, social media, tv | Leave a Comment »

Bad PR for United

Posted by prof e on April 11, 2017

United Airline has experienced some self-inflicted wounds recently and the latest PR pratfall shows little sign of easing. The forcible removal of a man from a plane at the Chicago airport was video recorded and shared far and wide on social media, including in Asia where David Dao lived before immigrating to the USA.

Bumping passengers from over-booked flights is pretty standard practice. Nearly half a million passengers voluntarily gave up their seat last year, including 63,000 on United. My son took a bump this weekend and got a nice meal and a $500 voucher for his trouble. When not enough passengers volunteer their seats, airlines are allowed to bump passengers. However, they must give them compensation in the form of vouchers, gift cards or cash.

But the execution of the bump in this instance was anything but routine. Not only was the passenger forcibly removed but he was injured in the process. Adding insult to injury, the airline responded with
the kind of statement that gives PR a bad name. Social media lit up when the procedure was referred to as “having to ‘re-accommodate’ these customers” …customers who, we might add, were ejected to make room for United employees traveling to Louisville. That led to this meme by NFL player Joe Thomas………

 

And this tweet…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The story is complicated by the passenger’s troubled history including the suspension of his license to practice medicine. But that doesn’t excuse United’s behavior and public outrage has been pronounced. According to USA Today, at its low point on April 11, United’s stock lost nearly $1 billion.

 

Posted in ethics, PR, social media | Leave a Comment »

Juan Thompson, Disgraced Journalist, Jilted Lover, and “Hate Crime” Counterfeiter

Posted by prof e on March 6, 2017

media-ethics-980x560-c-default1The tragic roster of journalists who have disgraced their profession gained a new member last week when Juan Thompson, a reporter for the Intercept, was arrested on a number of serious charges. Those charges include “making more than a half-dozen bomb threats against Jewish community centers, schools and a Jewish history museum” as reported in the NY Times.

This come after Thompson was fired from his job as a reporter last year. According to media reports Thompson was “accused by the website the Intercept of fabricating quotes, creating fake email accounts, and impersonating other people, including the editor of the website. The site had described Thompson as a former reporter for DNAinfo Chicago and for WBEZ.”

Turns out that his journalistic malpractice was just the tip of the iceberg. Actually an iceberg it too generous of an analogy; glacial ice too pure to describe this maleficence. Thompson’s deceptive acts as a journalist were just the festering sore on the surface masking the cancer inside.

Thompson’s threats against Jewish schools and community centers came at a time when other, unrelated, anti-Semitic threats were being made and Jewish cemeteries were being vandalized. These hate crimes have been and continue to be covered by the news media as further evidence of the hatred and divisiveness ailing our country.

But Thompson’s acts were not, as it turned out, hate crimes against a religious minority, but rather an attempt to frame his former girlfriend who ended their relationship last summer. That’s right, a jilted lover stalked, harassed, and threatened his former girlfriend, and then tried to frame her by committing “hate crimes” in her name. According to Daily Mail, Thompson threatened to tell his former girlfriend’s future employers “that [she’s] a racist and homophobe.” Accusations that were sure to intimidate and harass.

Thompson’s crimes do damage to the journalistic profession he once represented and to those who faithfully do their job with integrity and honesty. But they also do damage to the cause of those who fight against the injustice of hate crimes. Sadly, and somewhat ironically, each time the acts now attributed to Thompson were reported as hate crimes it diminished the impact of real hate crimes…crimes that deserve public outrage and judicial action.

 

 

Posted in ethics, journalism | 16 Comments »

Alternative Facts and Rogue Tweets from Alt Federal Agencies

Posted by prof e on January 27, 2017

Journalists have their work cut out for them. With public faith in journalistic credibility at an all-time low and a combative White House that uses social media to circumvent traditional news channels, journalists are facing new challenges that have the potential to either make or break the industry.

A democracy depends on an information electorate, and information, for most of our recent history, has been the responsibility of a free and fair press. Newspapers, magazines, television networks, and internet websites have been the backbone of the journalistic enterprise in recent decades. Investigating and exposing corruption, reporting without bias, holding those in power to account…these are the responsibilities of a profession that is recognized and protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution. But more and more news consumers are turning to alternative sources of information, including social media and internet websites that frequently traffic in a different type of information.

Not all information is created equal and it is becoming increasingly difficult to ascertain the value and credibility of the barrage of information that vies for our attention. Take for example the estimates of the size of the crowd attending the Presidential Inauguration. Competing claims, some with photographic evidence, were made by partisan sources and reported by journalists…facts and “alternative facts” if you will.

On Facebook the other day I followed a link to a report of a catastrophic pipeline rupture. A photograph was presented as evidence, calling into question the safety of the Dakota Access pipeline. But the article falsely represented a photo from 2010 (taken in Texas) as a current photo from a Pennsylvania spill by the company connected to the Dakota Access project. Regardless of whether you support or object to a pipeline near this Native American community, this is not journalism.

You may have seen the eruption on Twitter from various “alternative” governmental organizations after President Trump ordered a suspension of the official social media accounts. While these rogue accounts may be just that…actions of government employees acting on their own initiative on their own time…it is also possible that they are simply fake accounts created by partisans who are participating in a grass-roots resistance to the new administration.

As such they are newsworthy, but not for the same reason they would be if indeed they are actually the work of federal employees. According to one blog,

For now, at least, most of these unverified accounts seem to be pushing positive agendas: the climate change facts that many of them tweet are unequivocal, and the planned march of scientists on Washington promises to raise legitimate concerns about scientific progress in the United States. But a dejected left-wing and liberal group should remember that these accounts are emotionally gratifying, not edifying. Embracing such gratification without critical analysis veers close to the Trump administration’s embracing of “alternative facts” — lies that suit the narrative you’d prefer.

Disclaimer: the above quote is from The Verge, a website that has a mixed record as a credible source of news/information.

 

Posted in ethics, journalism, media industry, new media, politics, social media | 1 Comment »

Time for a New Theory of the Press?

Posted by prof e on January 12, 2017

Four Theories of the Press, published in 1956, was an attempt to explain the role of journalism in the modern world. Each of the four theories are established on the essential values and norms held by governments and citizens who consider the press an essential component of governance. Values that we hold dear are “normalized” by our policies and behavior. Governments, media corporations, and individuals all play a crucial role in determining which values are advanced over competing values.

Recently I came across a blog post from February, 2007 and a comment that I wrote in response. The blog is no longer being maintained, but my comment seems somehow relevant in lights of the current issues plaguing the profession of journalism. Here is the comment as posted nearly 10 years ago…

Press models have never been very good at describing the real world…and even less so now that access to vast quantities of raw, unfiltered information is the norm. Never in the history of communication has there been such unrestricted access to information…and access to the means of production. However, as we all know, information alone does not make for an informed public.

However, there are signs that the investigative reporting role of traditional media is in for a dramatic upheaval. Memogate was just one example of how the collective intelligence of the masses trumped big media. The Consumer-Generated Media model that makes Wikipedia a qualified success is being applied to a particular role played by journalists commonly known as whistle-blowing. Wikileaks.org is a website designed to give a voice to dissidents and critics of oppressive regimes…but may also be equally helpful at exposing corruption within democracies and Fortune 500 companies. One of the most important roles of the press in the Social Responsibility Model is that of watchdog…and now they have the potential to add hundreds and even thousands of eyes and ears of citizen reporters who already have access to closed systems. Sure there are a host of potential landmines…but if you believe that “information wants to be free” you have to believe that this is going to shake things up. This could get interesting.

I think we can agree that things have gotten interesting.

While watching President-elect Trump’s press conference yesterday I couldn’t help but think that the role of the press has never been more in question, and at the same time it has never been more important. In front of a room full of journalists, Trump declared CNN to be “fake news” and BuzzFeed a “failing pile of garbage.” Just two days earlier Meryl Streep called for public support for the “principled press” to serve as a check and balance to the Trump presidency.*

Journalists are not only trying to figure out how to respond to an aggressive and combative President-elect, they are trying to rebuild credibility that is at an all-time low. At the same time they are divided about whether BuzzFeed’s publishing of the Trump oppo-research file helped or hurt the cause of journalists everywhere. One might argue that if you accept BuzzFeed’s rational for their decision it makes journalists unnecessary.

Which takes us back to the point of the blog comment above…the growth of citizen journalism, the explosion of social media, and an ever-more partisan press have created a perfect storm that makes the Social Responsibility function of the press much more difficult…if not impossible.

*For the record, I support the “principled press”…the challenge is figuring out who they are.

 

Posted in ethics, journalism, media industry, politics, regulation | 2 Comments »

Free Speech for All in a Fact-Free Era?

Posted by prof e on December 2, 2016

Overheard in a newsroom: “What is journalism even supposed to be now? We reported the facts, but they didn’t matter.” In case you didn’t hear, “post-truth” is Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year for 2016. Here’s how they define it on their website. post-truth

The challenge for journalists, and really anyone who get to the bottom of things, is sorting out fact from fiction, reporting from commentary, and bias from perspective.

The problem with the newsroom quote above is that too many “journalists” DIDN’T report the facts. Or when they did, they didn’t put the facts in proper context. Added to that is that reality that nearly anyone can become a de facto journalist thanks to the wonders of modern digital media and social networks. Given a place to stand and a megaphone, the most strident voices have suddenly found themselves with the ability to sway opinions…even, perhaps, influence elections.

If it seems that this blog is stuck on this topic (see recent posts about fake news and fact-checking), you’re right. But this is important…and if we don’t get this right we’ll have to live with the consequences. What consequences you say? Well, for starters how about a future where ideological conflicts spill over into the streets…where discourse and discussion give way to hate-filled rhetoric designed to alienate and subjugate the opposition?

Unfortunately some of the proposed solutions may turn out to be worse than the problem. Giving social media platforms a reason and permission to edit users’ posts is a dangerous and slippery slope. Do we really want Mark Zuckerberg’s algorithm and a team of editors deciding between fact and fiction, bias and perspective? We’ve already witnessed the failure of that approach earlier this year.

Recently Twitter booted accounts from those connected to the alt-right movement for “harassment and ‘hateful conduct,’ which includes “non-consensual slurs, epithets, racist and sexist tropes” and “behavior that incites fear about a protected group.”  This led the editors at Slate to ask if Facebook or Twitter might possibly ban President Trump. Twitter responded that it wouldn’t rule it out. As Slate said, “That’s a tough line from a company that once declared itself the ‘free speech wing of the free speech party.’” (BTW, the click-bait headline for this post might have been: “Twitter considers banning President Trump!”)

So where are we now? Some of the ejected Twitter users have moved to a new platform that promises greater freedom of speech. Gab.ai is, according to the New York Times, the far right’s “new digital safe space.” It’s much too early to tell if Gab has any legs, but if it does it will likely do little to advance dialog and understanding between those contending for the future of our country. Amanda Hess of the NYTimes sums it up nicely, “It’s the next logical step after all the blocking and muting on Twitter and filtering and unfollowing on Facebook split America into two social media realities. Where there once was a bubble, now there’s a wall.”

Posted in 1st amendment, ethics, interactive media, journalism, politics, regulation, social media | 1 Comment »

The Sky is FALLING…And You Won’t Believe Who’s Responsible!

Posted by prof e on November 23, 2016

misleading-fake-news-sitesThere’s been a lot of discussion lately about the potential danger of fake news. Apparently we’re a lot more gullible and susceptible to misinformation than anyone imagined, and IT IS KILLING DEMOCRACY! Okay, that conclusion may be overstating it a bit, but the number of media and political analysts who are wringing their hands over the outcome of the recent election seems to be growing. And seeking an explanation (or scapegoat), some are pointing the finger at fake news.

The proliferation of satire, fake news, clickbait, propaganda, and commentary masquerading as news is undeniable. While there have always been people with an agenda spreading lies and hearsay, the dynamics have changed in recent years. Social media platforms provide opportunities to people who, before social media, had to work a lot harder to gain an audience. For those familiar with Ryan Holiday’s “trading up the chain” approach to media manipulation, this should come as no surprise.

There have been quite a few excellent summaries of the issue. Some have questioned whether media platforms like Google and Facebook bear responsibility (here, here, and here); others have reported on specific case studies (here, and here), and efforts to combat (or at least categorize) the growing number of questionable sites (here). A new report from Stanford suggests that we have a lot of work to do while MediaShift proposes a role for journalism programs.

I have a few suggestions of my own.

  1. In a world where anyone can be a source of news, what we need is for everyone to behave like a journalist when confronted with new information. Remember the motto of skeptical journalists everywhere: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out!” We need more skepticism and less single-source research.
  2. For those of you who prefer social media for your news…because it’s free, quick, and often fun…remember that you get what you pay for. Unless you read in-depth from multiple and diverse sources you can’t consider yourself an informed consumer of news.
  3. Learn about confirmation bias and make a commitment to discovering your own vulnerability. Until we take a long, hard look in the mirror we have no right to point out the bias in others.
  4. And finally, don’t share anything on social media unless you’re willing to vouch for its accuracy and authenticity. That rule alone will do wonders to improve the overall news IQ of our democracy.

Posted in 1st amendment, ethics, journalism, media industry, new media, politics, regulation, social media | 1 Comment »

Private Lies Exposed

Posted by prof e on October 12, 2016

A journalist’s job is to find and report the truth. Assuming for a moment that “the truth” exists and can be found and identified as such, journalists still face a plethora of challenges as they go about their work. For starters, the truth can be inconvenient. Thanks to Al Gore, the inconvenience of truth is now forever linked to a particular issue; global warming. But every issue has its inconvenient aspects. For example, a journalist may uncover a fact that runs counter to her personal values or beliefs. Or, a discovery may reveal a truth that defies simple explanation.

Of course a truth revealed can also be terribly inconvenient for the news maker. Celebrities, politicians, and others in the public eye are constantly trying to manage their public perception…which is often at odds with their private reality. Last week’s revelations from Wikileaks and NBC/Access Hollywood have been very inconvenient for Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump respectively for obvious reasons. The leaks, while damaging, do not break new ground but rather reinforce existing concerns about Clinton’s propensity for lying and Trump’s sexist and demeaning behavior towards women.

In each case the public figure is damaged when the private self is suddenly revealed. This is, of course, most pronounced when the public and private selves are substantially at odds with each other. The greater the difference, the more pronounced the conflict when the private self is exposed. This kind of hypocrisy, of which we are all guilty on some level, can derail a public figure when it spins out of control. The public demands authenticity, or at least something closely resembling it, from their leaders.

Journalists are often the ones who have the dirty job of pointing out hypocrisy wherever and whenever it exists…even when it is found in “their” candidate…or themselves.

Posted in ethics, journalism, media industry, politics | 13 Comments »

Fact Checking the Fact Checkers

Posted by prof e on October 4, 2016

truthmeterMass media are essential to the process of democracy. “Government of the people, by the people, for the people” only works if the people know what’s going on…and the media provide the primary channels for that information. Of course the implication is that the mass media do their jobs in a responsible way, avoiding partisan bias and manipulation by outside interests. The brunt of this responsibility falls on journalists. Whether they work for newspapers, TV networks, or internet websites, reporters who cover the political beat are the eyes and ears of the American electorate. Ideally they report what they see and hear without speculation or conjecture.

In a political season such as this, journalists must be particularly careful when covering candidates who use every trick in the book to manipulate the media and advance their message. When candidates stretch the truth (often to the breaking point) journalists in a live reporting situation must make an effort to call out the error.

But fact checking candidates and their surrogates can be tricky business. While partisans may think that every statement by their political opponents is a flat-out lie, it is seldom that clear-cut. Journalists must have enough command of the facts to catch the easy calls, and the aid of researchers, aka fact-checkers, to parse the more difficult cases. This is not easy. NBC’s Matt Lauer was heavily criticized for pushing back too hard when interviewing Hillary Clinton for the Commander-In-Chief Forum, and NBC’s Lester Holt was criticized for fact-checking Donald Trump but not Hillary Clinton in the first presidential debate last week.

Fortunately journalists, and the public, have additional resources at their disposal. Independent fact-checking organizations have stepped up to provide non-partisan, independent fact-checking of politicians and other news-makers. Politifact’s Truth-O-Meter is one example. Here’s a short (light-hearted) video that explains how it works.

Posted in ethics, journalism, politics | 6 Comments »