The ethical questions just keep coming . . .

November 27, 2007

This one comes from the Asbury Park Press, which used a photo illustration to depict New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine for a package on his finance practices. The governor’s office was appalled, and it questioned the newspaper’s integrity. See Editor & Publisher’s reporting on this exchange.

And you judge for yourselves. Below is the cover. What do you think? Applying Poynter’s tool, do you come out in support of or opposed to this kind of photo use?

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Leveraging Facebook and social networks

November 27, 2007

With a blend of surprise, excitement and dismay did I greet the news that ABC News is collaborating with Facebook to reach the millions of mostly college-age social networkers with the news, and with news about the news.

The nut graf:
The announcement is another sign that news organizations are looking to capitalize on the potential power of Facebook, which began as a database of college friendships, and other social networking sites. Media companies like The New York Times and The Washington Post have produced pages for use on Facebook and some newspapers, magazines and television stations have recently invited users to join special pages that are set up to follow reporters’ political coverage. But ABC’s new relationship is intended to be deeper.

The surprise is that ABC News is first on Facebook’s dance card. The demographics of the two would not seem to correspond. The excitement is for what will surely be a proliferation of these kinds of marriages. The dismay is because of the fact that we, the faculty at Berry and the new media team at the local Rome News-Tribune, collaborated on a grant proposal that, among other things, would have funded an effort in Rome to leverage Facebook to reach those college students in the area who elected to receive what we produced. This would have been content created with Floyd County college students in mind. Alas, the grant did not come through, but the idea obviously had great merit.

The explosion of interest in social networking, even in and by corporate America (see this press release from a software company in California, for example), means we will see a lot more collaboration of the kind ABC and Facebook are planning. Google, for example, with its designs for the mobile phone, will need collaborations like this latest one to provide the search-and-advertising giant with content. There is a mint to be made by netentrepreneurs with ways to make these connections.

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And a note about Amazon’s new Kindle e-reader. Yes, we’ve seen lots of attempts to create electronic books, since before the Internet, and they’ve all been fantastic failures. Kindle might be different, however, and certainly it represents a new generation of e-readers, a generation more in tune with the ways we like to read. So I will be watching it most closely. I have heard that it sold out in one day, but have not yet been able to confirm this.


Whether to link to a terrorist group’s videotape

November 18, 2007

In my editing classes, we’ve been discussing and debating an ethical dilemma: whether to link to a terrorist group’s videotape in a hypothetical scenario involving the beheading of an Iraqi leader and the kidnapping of American journalists. Here’s the full assignment (it’s a Word .doc download). I thank Bill Mitchell, director of Poynter Online, for the scenario.)

And it truly is a dilemma, because each option presents potential dangers and a different list of pros and cons. The dilemma pits several core journalistic values and ethical imperatives against one another, including journalistic independence, maximizing truth, minimizing harm and serving the public interest.

To reason our way through the dilemma, we relied on Steele’s and Poynter’s Ethics Tool, as well as a Principles of Linking document (Word download), also from Poynter and which I highly recommend. (Poynter really does tremendous work providing resources for journalism educators. I am very grateful.) In fact, the main emphasis of the assignment was to consider ethical decision-making as a process rather than thinking of ethics as a set of moral values you either possess or don’t possess. I wanted us to see ethics as a process and a skill that can be learned. So I looked in their rationales for process, for systematic thought and for a step-by-step application of the Poynter tool to the circumstances.

The students did a really good job considering the core values and thinking through which ones demanded priority, as well as how to articulate both the decision-making process and justification for their final decisions to their hypothetical readerships and viewerships. (We hypothesized ourselves as editorial teams for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, WSB TV in Atlanta and CNN.)

In particular, most students really did think through what it would mean in this scenario to maximize truth AND minimize harm, what information they were compelled to provide in service to the public’s interest, and what information other considerations suggested they withhold. Most considered the potential harm to the five still being held by Sunni terrorists.

A few, however, were far too willing to capitulate to U.S. government officials asking media not to air the videotape or link to the terrorist Web site. The disregard or lack of consideration of allegiance to journalistic independence and, therefore, to journalistic integrity is troubling, disturbing. What government officials think a news organization should do is a concern, but it is not the most important one; it is not even a very important one. A news organization can and should weigh for itself the affected stakeholders’ interests in the decision and the potential threats to national interests, and then to consider them against the obligation to maximize truth and to inform.

A related danger I saw in more than one rationale is the impulse to treat readers or viewers as children, to act paternalistically in “protecting” them from violence and the horrors of insurgent warfare. Oh, no. It’s in some ways the twin danger of conspiring with government to do the government’s bidding. Journalism is to afflict the comfortable every bit as much as to comfort the afflicted. Yes, we put a very high value on sensitivity to the families of the journalists kidnapped and to those very same journalists themselves, their lives hanging in the balance. But we consider every bit as important our obligation to inform those paying for this war, many of whom with sons and daughters in the war. They are adults, and they deserve every shred and shard of information we can conscientiously provide them.

Oddly no one mentioned Muslims in this country as stakeholders in this decision. Sunnis assassinated a Shi’ia leader for particularly Sunni aims. What of Muslim reactions in the United States? What of the potential to inflame passions here? It should at least be a consideration. Of much less importance would be the family of the dead prime minister, who likely do not watch WSB TV or read the AJC.

To my students, I ask one more thing in this quest to develop our skills as ethical decision-makers. React or respond to this post by answering one question, in an attempt to take this exercise one step further and to develop the conversation between us: Tell me about one thing you learned in this exercise, one thing you did not know or perhaps did not adequately appreciate before this ethics workshop.

Jessie was kind enough to pass along her model rationale, which I post here (it is a Word .doc download). Jessie takes one view; in her very different rationale, Caitlin Carroll takes the opposite view. Both are models, both earned full points.


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