Monday, November 24, 2014

Covering every angle of the debate: going to war in Syria and Iraq

Picture credit: FAIR

Sometimes it can be difficult for the news to cover every aspect of a hot topic. There are so many opinions, and only so much time to devote to each story. However, a media consumer can reasonably expect a certain spread of voices. But that is not always the case.

The organization Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) recently released a report on how corporate TV news has covered the U.S.’s involvement in Syria and Iraq. Titled “Debating How - Not Whether - to Launch a New War,” the report found that during two weeks of heavy coverage of the topic in September “of the more than 200 guests who appeared on network shows to discuss the issue, just six voiced opposition to military action.”

In an interview on Democracy Now!, Peter Hart, the activism director at FAIR, explained that “the debate sometimes looked rather passionate; it had the appearances of a real debate. But what they were really debating was the mechanics of war, whether we should drop bombs just on Iraq or on Iraq and Syria, whether Obama was aggressive enough. There were critics of the White House, but they were critics that were pro-war.” What appeared to be a range of opinions seems to have only debated part of the issue.

Hart argued that there are strong similarities between this coverage and the pre-war media response back in 2002 and 2003. He asked “Has anything changed from 2002 to 2003 to right now? And the answer in the study is, absolutely not. If anything, the debate is more restricted now.”

How important is it to have many different opinions in our news? How can you as a media professional or a media consumer help ensure we have a range of voices represented?

- Kate Davidson

Democracy Now!
FAIR report

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Publishing the repugnant: Editorial Ethics

In a recent CIME blog post, author Kate Davidson discussed the implications of the “watermelon flavored toothpaste” cartoon run by the Boston Herald. The paper, its editor, and the cartoonist immediately apologized for their gaff and insisted the cartoon was not meant to be racist. The cartoonist claimed that there was a tube of kids watermelon flavored toothpaste left at his house and he simply took the flavor and put it into the copy. Whether this is the truth or not, the editor of the Herald should be held responsible for the decision to print the cartoon.

The chimpanzee is commonly believed to represent President Obama.
Rev. Al Sharpton stated at the time that the cartoon "is troubling at
best given the historic racist attacks of African-Americans as being
synonymous with monkeys," and since the stimulus bill was
"the first legislative victory of President Barack Obama."
Photo credit: Think Progress
An editor’s job is complex. They deal with a myriad of issues that surround publishing, including being the ‘taste monitors’ of their papers (or magazines, online blogs, etc.). In fact, it could be argued that in today’s hyper pace news world, the most important job of an editor is to ensure there are civility, integrity, and ethical standards to which their employees are held. A political cartoon, just like a front-page story, has protections and privileges under the first amendment. These factors do not absolve the editorial staff of their responsibility. A cartoonist can draw up whatever Obama is a pimp racist rants they choose- but it is the job of the editor to ensure these outlandish cartoons never see the light of day (as was the case with the aforementioned cartoon. The editorial department of the Rome News-Tribune killed the story, but the artist sold it to other outlets). At the very least cartoons that can be considered extremely offensive should be placed in the opinion.

News Editors in the past have come under fire for their role in the publishing of offensive materials. In fact, according to this story from, an editor in Los Angeles was fired from their posting at the Brentwood Patch for the publishing of an offensive Cinco de Mayo themed cartoon. With the rise of social media, editors must be in tune more than ever to how the cartoons and the images housed within their pages will be received by the general public. Images and stories surrounding this cartoon related to Ferguson Missouri and this cartoon from The New Yorker spread across the Internet like wildfire. (In fact, you can view every New Yorker cover featuring Obama on their special slideshow here). The news outlets received backlash from one side of the country to the next, something that would seem unlikely in the past due to the limited circulation of some of these outlets.

Some claim these cartoons are not intended to be racist, that in fact it is the public who has become too sensitive to this type of humor, or simply just does not ‘get the joke.’ That is one opinion, another is that maybe the general public has simply evolved from the ‘level of humor’ that can be found in these ’50 most offensive’ compilation. Whichever the reason for the rise in the backlash felt by editors, one thing is clear… with social media and ethical watchdog groups everywhere, cartoonists and editors alike should be wary of a joke in which they are the only ones laughing.

- Carol Davey

CIME blog
imediaethics - Obama watermelon toothpaste cartoon?
imediaethics - Former editor says he was fired for cartoon patch said was racist
New York Magazine
The Guardian
The New Yorker - Obama on the New Yorkers Cover
The New Yorker - Judging a Cover

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Solutions Journalism could be consumption's new best friend

Whether we like to admit it or not, we are living in the midst of an information age. The social data revolution has transformed our lives forever; as has the sheer amount of information that we consume on a daily basis. In terms of digital information, a Huffington Post article cited research done at the University of San Diego that quantified our global annual digital information consumption way back in 2011 at or around 9,570,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes (or 9.57 zettabytes). To put this in perspective, remember that there are 1 trillion gigabytes in 1 zettabyte. To give you further footing to comprehend this: 1000 exabytes=1 zettabyte. With one exabyte you could stream the entire Netflix library 3,117 times.

We are consuming gazillions of bytes of information, but how do we get the information? In the U.S, a recent survey by the Media Insight Project claimed that, “the majority of Americans across generations now combine a mix of sources and technologies to get their news each week.” The project would go on to say that by in large most Americans use a mixture of about five technologies or devices to get their information.

So we have a seemingly-never ending amount of information to choose from as well as a plethora of places to go for information; does that mean that we will always seek out information that matters? When it comes to the information that we consume in regards to mass media, do we as consumers exercise the same judgment or critical thinking when selecting what we read or watch, as opposed to deciding how much we watch or read?

Photo credit: Journalism That Matters, Flickr
I wanted to introduce a type of reporting or brand of journalism that may get overlooked from time to time. It’s called, “Solutions Journalism.” In a nutshell, solutions journalism is media coverage that is intended to incite change and make communities better. It provides templates and examples for people and organizations to solve problems. It also creates a space for people to have dialogues and discussions about problems that affect society and humanity. While time honored traditions like advocacy journalism and investigative journalism seem to occupy our attention spans with more frequency, do they really provide us with the methodology to solve the problems that they highlight?

As the Hutchins Commission first attempted to point out back in 1947, when the press and mass media are determining what material to produce, they always have an ethical duty to keep society’s best interest in mind to allow for the greatest, most positive impact, to occur. Sometimes it seems that the vestiges of what modern democratic journalism was founded upon became lost or misplaced amid our voracious media consumption in the digital age. Is merely keeping the public informed good enough? Or should we demand more from our journalists and mass media inputs? Mainstream solutions journalism has the potential to make strong inroads into the mass media and digital media universe. I believe that if we make sound decisions when we decide on the journalistic material we ingest, like solutions journalism, we can ensure that our options will continue to evolve right along with our society and ourselves.

- William Korte

Internet Archive
The Huffington Post - Advocacy Journalism is Polarizing our Country
The Huffington Post - This is How Much Information the World Consumes Each Year
The Guardian
Solutions Journalism

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Publicly Funded Bias: The BBC and the Vote for Scottish Independence

Election Season. In America the months preceding the casting of a ballot can be daunting. It has become customary for the nation’s media to become inundated with mudslinging, mistruths, and bias. For example, American news outlets such as Fox and MSNBC are routinely charged with showing bias or favoritism to a particular candidate. While the stakes are high in presidential elections, there is no more significant a decision than that of one’s own independence. Say for instance, the vote held on September the 18th that determined whether or not Scotland would break away from Great Britain. While bias from private media companies is expected in American media, should publicly owned outlets, such as the BBC, be held to a higher standard? A protest held in September at the BBC’s Scottish headquarters in Glasgow points to a yes.

Photo credit: Daily Mail
According to The Independent, “thousands of angry nationalists [gathered to ] accuse the corporation and its political editor, Nick Robinson, of broadcasting “lies” and being “biased” in favour of retaining the Union.” The Independent went on to say: “the demonstrators’ anger centered on two events: an alleged failure of the BBC to broadcast the true scale of a Yes rally in Glasgow on Saturday; and accusations that… the Treasury spread lies about the dangers to business and financial services of an independent Scotland.” Even the BBC’s former Business Editor, Paul Mason, was dismayed with the BBC over its coverage of the Scottish independence campaign. “Mason, who worked for the BBC for 12 years before becoming Economics Editor at Channel 4 News in 2013, wrote on his Facebook page that, "Not since Iraq have I seen BBC News working at propaganda strength like this. So glad I'm out of there," claimed

The vote for Scottish Independence resulted in an 85% voter turnout, over 4 million votes cast, and a margin of only 600,000 between staying with the UK or becoming independent. The campaigns Better Together (Union) and Yes Scotland (Nationalist) were supposed to the be two main pieces of public outreach for the conflicting sides of the referendum, yet some claim the bias from the public funded BBC tipped the scales towards Union favor. According to The Guardian, “there is no newspaper – local, regional or national, English or Scottish – that supports independence except the Sunday Herald. The Scots who will vote yes have been almost without representation in the media.” The author of the piece “How the Media Shafted the People of Scotland,” George Monbiot, went on to say, “That so many Scots, lambasted from all quarters as fools, frauds and ingrates, have refused to be bullied is itself a political triumph. If they vote for independence, they will do so in defiance not only of the Westminster consensus but also of its enforcers: the detached, complacent people who claim to speak on their behalf.”

Arguments for either side of the referendum have their merits. As an observer, one would have thought inwardly about what vote they would cast if in a Scot’s shoes- but therein lies the problem. The BBC is funded through a public license fee. Therefore the people of Scotland partially pay for its programming and were in essence funding a bias for "no" in media controlled by the very people from whom they were seeking independence. 600,000 people casting a different vote would have altered modern history. One cannot help but wonder how the people of Scotland would have voted had the BBC and other controlled media not ‘shown a bias.’

Media ethics already hangs on tattered shreds during election seasons in many parts of the world (including the free and democratic), but due to their usually being private companies with almost transparent partiality, this is taken as commonplace. The actions of the BBC, operating under a Royal Charter, should be held to a higher standard and the people of Scotland should have been able to determine their future free from interference or publicly funded bias.

- Carol Davey

CBS News
Business Insider
BBC Facts and Figures
The Independent
NewsNet Scotland
Better Together
Yes Scotland
The Guardian
Sunday Herald
Royal Charter

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Advertising: can the media do it ethically?

Do you make donations to nonprofits or charities? What about media organizations?

Wikipedia's current logo.
Photo credit: Wikipedia
On Wikipedia’s donation page, founder Jimmy Wales writes “When I founded Wikipedia, I could have made it into a for-profit company with advertising banners, but I decided to do something different.” He explains, “Commerce is fine. Advertising is not evil. But it doesn’t belong here. Not in Wikipedia.”

Some media organizations rely on donations in order to keep themselves independent from advertising. But for many others, advertising is necessary in order to sustain themselves. Is using advertising in the media unethical?

Photo credit: Barone English
And what exactly does advertising consist of? Is it traditional ads on the sides, top, and bottom of a web page? Sponsored content, as discussed in a CIME blog post last year? Product placement? Anything that “feature[s] the product or encourage[s] purchase or consumption of the product or service?

In an article for the Advertising Educational Foundation, Chris Moore discusses the ethics of advertising. He brings up everything from truth, casting, online advertising, free speech, subliminal messaging, and even promoting a company’s own good deeds and social causes. If advertising can be done ethically, can it be incorporated into the media ethically as well?

At a time when many media organizations are stretched for money, and advertising seems like an alluring way to gain extra funds, how could you do it to preserve media ethics?

- Kate Davidson


CIME blog - The Ethical Debate of Sponsored Content in Journalism
Wikipedia Donation Page
Advertising Standards Bureau
Advertising Educational Foundation

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Ebola in the news: photo journalism ethics when writing about disease

About a month ago the CIME blog released an article about the media coverage of Ebola - and the ethical travesty it had become. Fear inducing headlines, terrifying graphics, and information that made even level-headed, healthy people in the US want to self-diagnose themselves with the disease. Over the last 10 months there has been a lot of criticism of the media’s handling of Ebola, yet the fear mongering has continued, commonly in the form of photo journalism.

One Poynter article claims that two types of graphics tend to be used:

  • Images of the virus (nasty, scary, up-close, and colorful); and
  • People in hazmat suits

To this list we could probably add photos of people in afflicted countries, generally those who are being treated for the disease.

The following are five images discussed in the Poynter article, displaying a range of images and headlines about Ebola:

(Australian Courier Mail)
(New York Daily News)
(San Diego Union Tribune)
(Alabama Times-Journal)
(New York Daily News)

Photo credits for all five images above: Poynter
Are these the best pictures to accompany stories about Ebola?

Poynter quotes Andrew Seaman, who works for Reuters as a medical journalist and serves the Society of Professional Journalists as the ethics chair, as saying that “the images must tell the story accurately. For example, the image should probably not be that of a person suffering with Ebola in a small Liberian medical center if the story is specifically about what is happening in Texas...The experience of people with Ebola in Liberia is - for the most part - much different than the experience of patients in the U.S.”

Similarly, Seaman makes the point that the choice of the image might be ethical, but might become sensationalized if paired with a poor headline.

Photo journalism ethics can be tricky at the best of times, but when dealing with the spread of contagious diseases they become particularly difficult. How can journalists choose the most ethical images to pair with their articles on Ebola?

- Kate Davidson

The Guardian
Code Words
CIME - The media myths about Ebola

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Don't let editorial endorsements become a thing of the past

Photo credit: Berkeley Graduate Division
It’s late October and the leaves have begun to change color and fall to the ground. Soon it will be hard to walk outside without fighting an urge to relive our childhood by doing a superman dive into a bunch of raked leaves. If you live in the US, and you care at all about politics, you also know this means that you have 3 weeks to decide on who you will be voting for in the upcoming mid-term election. Chances are if you’ve been an active voter in the United States, you have come to expect a certain set of fixtures that have always coincided with our mid-term elections. Things like: debates, meet & greets, and - our time-honored tradition - smear campaigns. However, there is another time-honored practice of the democratic voting process that has lost some of its mojo in recent years, which has come to the chagrin of many registered voters. In case you weren’t sure, I am referring to newspaper endorsements. Newspaper endorsements or editorial endorsements have been an institution of US elections for decades if not centuries. Yet newspapers have recently become somewhat fickle with their attitudes towards endorsing political candidates around election time.

It seems that newspapers have become increasingly anxious about backing candidates. In an age when newspapers are hemorrhaging advertising dollars and when competition for readers and circulation is at an all time high, there has been a concerted effort by dailies to try and remain as independent and neutral as possible when it comes to elections. Despite this fact, you would be hard pressed to find an editorial section in any major newspaper that doesn’t feature an opinion on a politician or politics. But really, is this trend towards neutrality consistent with the “watchdog’ or protector role that we have always sought and expected from our press? If we can’t trust our newspapers to help us decide on who to vote for, how can we trust them to keep who we vote for honest?

The mid-term election at hand is of note because it comes at a time when many Americans are unsure how to feel about politics. According to a recent poll conducted by Politico, a majority of respondents expressed feelings of uneasiness and doubt regarding the current state of affairs in the land of the free. These fears include looming threats of terrorism and the spread of Ebola, with the latter fear having been recently exacerbated by the shortcomings of both WHO and the CDC. The ISIS crisis and second round of Obamacare enrollment has also been a source of anxiety for American voters. With so much alarm in the air it would seem that this election would be an opportune time for our press to come to our aid by helping us come to clear decisions about who deserves our vote. With voter turnout in midterm elections lower than presidential elections in every election cycle since the 1840s, perhaps political endorsements could be a cause for activism and maybe even inspiration instead of apathy. By endorsing candidates and informing us about them, I believe that newspapers and other media entities can help engage us during election season, especially minorities and young people who traditionally are more likely not to participate in elections.

This year’s midterm election will decide 435 seats in the House of Representatives, 33 in the Senate, and 34 in gubernatorial offices. With the advent of negative campaign ads, political scandals, corruption, and special interests, voting in the US has become like navigating a minefield. As such it would be nice if we could count on the press and, more specifically, our newspapers to help us out come election time. November 4th, 2014 will be a very interesting day in the United States. One thing for sure is that it is always a more compelling day when newspapers make our voting decisions more interesting by endorsing the people who want our vote.

- William Korte

Columbia Journalism Review
Pew Research Center