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Teaching Media Ethics to Two Generations of News Consumers

By Ben L. Kaufman · September 13th, 2010 · On Second Thought
Next Wednesday I’ll pursue a favorite past time — that is, introducing a class of University of Cincinnati undergraduates to the ambiguities of journalism ethics.

Even in this lousy economy and shrinking industry, some journalism grads will get the jobs they want. I want to help prepare them for the workplace and suggest ways to extract themselves with some dignity after they fuck up.

Nothing is off limits so long as it implicates ethical issues in the gathering and presentation of news. We’ll talk about virtues and vices, standards and seducers. Our first session probably will include the threatened burning of the Qur’an by a Florida pastor.

Ethical issues raised by media responses provide a course in themselves. Not so long ago, the Rev. Terry Jones would have been lucky to get 15 seconds of infamy on his local Fox News station in the Stupid Tricks segment after weather and sports. Today, with the Internet and poverty of content for 24/7 cable news cycles, Jones’ threat became a lethal global event.

And in October I’ll teach a similar class for UC’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI): Media Ethics and Missteps. It’s freewheeling — no text, exams or grades.

UC undergrads in my class, mostly journalism majors in the fast-growing program created and run by Jon Hughes, don’t get their news the way the older OLLI students do. Many undergrads don’t read a daily paper even if they want to work for one. Maybe they watch local and/or network TV news.

That used to bother me. Eventually, I took my own advice: “Get over it.”

Bright ones get news online on omnipresent laptops from traditional sources that increasingly emphasize Internet presence. Students nibble at news — they don’t consume it — and turn to Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, where sources increasingly post material for these audiences. How much they rely on these new media is something I hope to learn from them.

Typically, undergrads don’t have time or space to spread a daily paper and read the stories that attract them. It’s not part of undergrad life. Previous classes have given me that “you’re cute for a dinosaur” when I ask if they miss reading a daily paper. They’ve never read one. As with most American homes, their families don’t subscribe.

Students want to work in broadcast, online, cable or print. Their technological skills can be intimidating. Mine are best suited for tying laces on wingtip oxfords, changing a typewriter ribbon, setting headline type by hand, worrying about photo engravings on metal plates, sharing news by wire in what were called “wire services” and rolling a paper so that it doesn’t fly apart when it lands on a front step, rose bush or porch gutter.

The best students want to go beyond skills, asking “why?” in addition to “how?” They enliven my life and our class in myriad ways, sometimes distracting and frustrating, but usually in the pursuit of a better explanation or application of an ethical standard. Every year, they remind me why I want to teach this course: It’s fun.

Older students in OLLI do the same in different ways. They're newspaper subscribers and readers. Many if not most come from homes where dailies were and remain part of life. Starting the day without “the morning paper” is unthinkable.

News is closer to their core and politics. They want to know what’s happening in politics and economics. Hardly parochial, they’re no strangers to Internet news sources, and if our Sole Surviving Daily goes ga-ga over a Lady Gaga concert they’ll use our next weekly class to argue about how the national obsession with celebrity affects news judgment.

Curmudgeon Notes

• Sunday Enquirer coverage of the proposed Cincinnati streetcar route again lacks even a token voice from residents whose lives will be disrupted. There was a lot of good information from reporters walking the routes and probing public records, yet they couldn’t seem to find anyone to talk to along the way. That’s the unconscious irony in the two reporters’ enterprise, since their research identified many buildings as residential. Was it too intimidating to approach Cincinnatians whose looks and lives are so different from the reporters’? It was a development story quoting the Usual Suspects from its start to the token appearance of two well-known representatives of lower income Cincinnatians.

There is hardly a mention of who might ride the streetcars or what it will cost Cincinnati taxpayers to subsidize every passenger. That’s no surprise. Other cities embrace urban transit to move lots of people and reduce vehicle congestion and pollution. Not here, where what’s good for development is good for Cincinnati.

At least The Enquirer allowed the Rev. Damon Lynch III to hit a point that has been ignored too often here as Cincinnatians get dreamy about emulating Portland’s endlessly cited public transit success: Much of development out there was on vacant land. If necessary, the poor will be priced out of redeveloped homes and shifted to other areas, just as they were when I-75 and redevelopment/renewal destroyed their communities. Maybe they’ll be bused to Section 8 apartment projects in Butler County.

• Libertarian Jim Berns, who is challenging U.S. Rep. Steve Driehaus in the 1st District, complained to WVXU-FM and the FCC after he was not invited to participate in Maryanne Zeleznik’s Sept. 2 Impact Cincinnati program along with Dreihaus and another challenger, Steve Chabot. Berns says the exclusion violated federal rules. He wants equal airtime and program promotion for himself and Green Party candidate Rich Stevenson.

In an exchange posted on cincinnatibeacon.com, Berns posted Zeleznik’s response. She says WVXU is typical of other public radio stations around the country in that it will interview “all qualified candidates who have demonstrated a measurable chance of election to the office they seek. ... (T)he mere presence of a candidate’s name on the ballot is not enough.” Further, a candidate asking to be interviewed on the air must be “publicly committed to seeking election by the write-in method and documents that he/she is conducting an active campaign, including having a staffed campaign headquarters and receiving press coverage; and has received five percent (5%) or more of support in a professionally conducted public opinion survey by an independent pollster.” On Sunday, Berns said there has been no further response from WVXU or anything from the FCC.

• Another third-party candidate’s protest was posted on cincinnatibeacon.com. Socialist Dan LaBotz wants the Ohio Newspaper Association to include him with Republican Rob Portman and Democrat Lee Fisher in debates over the Ohio race for U.S. Senate.

• Because the Associated Press provides most American dailies with state, national and international news, AP policies and practices have an impact beyond the tens of millions of papers sold every day. It’s been a busy time as the following items show.

In an memo picked up from PoynterOnline, AP Standards Editor Tom Kent made a point too often missed as American media embrace White House euphemisms for natural disasters, civilian deaths, torture and the like. Kent wrote in part, “Combat in Iraq is not over, and we should not uncritically repeat suggestions that it is, even if they come from senior officials.

The situation on the ground in Iraq is no different today than it has been for some months. Iraqi security forces are still fighting Sunni and al-Qaida insurgents. ...

“As for U.S. involvement, it also goes too far to say that the U.S. part in the conflict in Iraq is over. President Obama said Monday night that ‘the American combat mission in Iraq has ended. Operation Iraqi Freedom is over, and the Iraqi people now have lead responsibility for the security of their country.’ However, 50,000 American troops remain in country. Our own reporting on the ground confirms that some of these troops, especially some 4,500 special operations forces, continue to be directly engaged in military operations. These troops are accompanying Iraqi soldiers into battle with militant groups and may well fire and be fired on. ... Our stories about Iraq should make clear that U.S. troops remain involved in combat operations alongside Iraqi forces, although U.S. officials say the American combat mission has formally ended. We can also say the United States has ended its major combat role in Iraq or that it has transferred military authority to Iraqi forces. We can add that beyond U.S. boots on the ground, Iraq is expected to need U.S. air power and other military support for years to control its own air space and to deter possible attack from abroad.

“Unless there is balancing language, our content should not refer to the end of combat in Iraq or the end of U.S. military involvement. Nor should it say flat-out (since we can't predict the future) that the United States is at the end of its military role.”

• AP Senior Managing Editor Michael Oreskes announced new attribution guidelines for all AP print, broadcast and online news reports. I quote his staff memo in part: “In the age of the Web, the sourcing and reliability of information has become ever more crucial. So it is more important than ever that we be consistent and transparent in our handling of information that originated elsewhere than our own reporting. The policy addresses two kinds of situations: Attributing to other organizations information that we haven’t independently reported and giving credit to another organization that broke a story first, even when we match it — or advance it — through our own reporting.

“Attributing facts we haven’t gathered or confirmed on our own: We should provide attribution whether the other organization is a newspaper, website, broadcaster or blog; whether or not it’s U.S.-based; and whether or not it's an AP member or subscriber. ... If some information comes from another organization and some is ours, we should credit ourselves for what's ours and the other organization for what's theirs. (If the material from the other source turns out to be wrong, we'll cite them in any corrective we do later.)...

“(W)e shouldn’t use facts from a non-member news organization, even with credit, so frequently that we appear to be systematically and continuously free riding on that organization’s work.

“Crediting other organizations when they break a story and we match or further develop it: If organization X breaks a story and we then match it through our own original reporting, we should say something like this: 'The secret meeting in Paris was initially reported by X.' ... Sometimes our reporting goes so far beyond the other organization’s report that AP’s story is substantially our work. In such a case, we should still credit the other organization, though the credit can be farther down in the story. ... The goal is simply to give credit to whoever got the story started or added some significant new angle.”

• Another AP memo involves the proposed Islamic center about two blocks from the World Trade Center (Ground Zero.) It initially drew a lot of online comment, and Kent talked about the memo and reactions on Facebook: “One point of the memo was to say we should continue to avoid the phrase ‘ground zero mosque’ or ‘mosque at ground zero.’ This recommendation brought a stream of tweets and e-mailed comments, some fairly hostile, claiming that we were trying to hide the project's closeness to ground zero. The nearness of the mosque to the WTC site is, of course, at the root of the whole controversy. There's nothing we would or could do to conceal that. But ‘ground zero mosque’ leaves the impression that the mosque is right where the World Trade Center stood. In fact, the site of the proposed mosque and Islamic center is not at ground zero but two blocks away in a busy retail area. Opponents feel that a mosque even two blocks away is too close. But readers are entitled to know the geographical facts of the situation. Then they can judge it for themselves.

“Incidentally, our note today represented no change in the way we've been writing about this case. The vast majority of our stories in recent weeks have referred to a mosque ‘near’ ground zero or ‘two blocks away.’ But a few of our headlines have said ‘ground zero mosque,’ and we felt that term wasn't as specific as it could be. We did change one thing today: the ... keyword that news organizations use to find AP content on their computers. We had been using ‘Ground Zero Mosque’ and are changing that to ‘NYC Mosque’.”

• Let me toss in a quibble here. Does a prayer space in a Muslim community/cultural center make the whole building a “mosque.” Or is that lazy journalistic shorthand? After all, a chapel in a church-related hospital doesn’t make the whole place a church. Nor does space for prayer in a Jewish student center turn the entire building into a synagogue.

• Finally, Kent also said it would report but not distribute images of the Gainesville, Fla., pastor if he burns a Qur’an. “AP policy is not to provide coverage of events that are gratuitously manufactured to provoke and offend. In the past, AP has declined to provide images of cartoons mocking Islam and Jews. AP has often declined to provide images, audio or detailed descriptions of particularly bloody or grisly scenes, such as the sounds and moments of beheadings and shootings, displays of severed heads on pikes and images of hostages who are displayed by hostage-holders in an effort to intimidate their adversaries and advance their cause. Decisions are made on a case-by-case basis.”

• Is Sarah Palin ignorant or knowingly inflammatory? Her Facebook page said in part, “People have a constitutional right to burn a Koran if they want to, but doing so is insensitive and an unnecessary provocation — much like building a mosque at Ground Zero.” Maybe if she read newspapers, she’d know that no one is building a mosque at ground zero. Or maybe not.

• News media would not have lost their balance if the threat to burn the Qur’an came from the Left. Rather, under relentless partisan pressure from Fox News, bloggers and others, there is a corrosive newsroom fear of ignoring even the dumbest, most offensive utterances on the American Right. The Gainsville pastor couldn’t fail to draw the attention he craved for his threatened book burning. That it went global and went as far as the Oval Office is a measure of his savvy and the new media environment in which too many media are chasing too little news and sensation substitutes for substance. Can you imagine anyone bothering to report it if I announced that CityBeat’s liberal media critic would burn copies of The Turner Diaries or Mein Kampf on Fountain Square?

• Most TV networks said they’d cover the Gainsville Qur’an burning, but not Fox News, where Senior Vice President Michael Clemente told The Baltimore Sun: “We do not cover every flag burning that happens in this country. We don't run every hostage tape. ... If we tried to cover everyone who wants us to stick a camera in front of them, we'd run out of cameras pretty fast each day. But this is really about just using some judgment.”

Huffington Post reports that the Rupert Murdoch’s London Times and Sunday Times lost 1.2 million online readers after they raised a pay wall. I’m one of them. The data are attributed to Internet marketing research firm ComScore. In May, the month before the pay wall went up, the papers had 2.79 million individual online readers. Management said they expected a 90 percent loss of readership initially.

• Craig Silverman, who follows the news media in his delightful online column regrettheerror.com, is adding a similar biweekly online column devoted to business reporting. Talk about a soft target. It will be hosted by BusinessJournalism.org at the Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism.

• I hope it was an “Oh, shit!” moment when London Times editors learned that they had misidentified an unveiled woman in a published photo and the woman they named was sentenced to 99 lashes in an Iranian jail. I’ve been unable to find the photo, but here’s the Times’ correction:

“A woman identified as Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani in The Times last week was the victim of mistaken identity. The photograph printed was not of Ms Ashtiani but of Susan Hejrat, an Iranian exile who lives in Sweden and sits on the central committee of the Hekmanist [sic] party, a breakaway faction of Iran’s Communist party. It was given to The Times in good faith by Mohammed Mostafaei, who was Ms Ashtiani’s lawyer in Tehran until he was forced to flee Iran this summer for publicising her plight. He was responding to a request for a fresh picture of her.

“Mr Mostafaei said yesterday that Ms Ashtiani’s son, Sajad, 22, had e-mailed him two photographs three months ago and told him both were of his mother. One was the widely used picture of Ms Ashtiani with her face obscured by a chador, and the other was the one used by The Times on Saturday. That showed the full face of a woman. Mr Mostafaei said he had visited Ms Ashtiani in prison only once while representing her and he had been unable to see her full face because it was concealed behind her chador. The Times could not contact Ms Ashtiani’s son last night, but Ahmad Fatemi of the International Committee Against Stoning suggested a possible explanation, saying Ms Hejrat wrote a short article on Ms Ashtiani last month, with her own picture appended. The Times apologises for the error.”

Ms. Ashtiani may have suffered the 99 lashes for “spreading corruption and indecency” because of the London Times photo. Mission Free Iran web site said she received an earlier 99 lashes after her initial conviction for an “illicit relationship” with two men. A now-rescinded death sentence by stoning reflects subsequent charges of adultery and complicity in the murder of her husband. She still faces a death sentence by other means if she survives the whippings.

• Speaking of photos, The London Telegraph reports the death of model-turned-photographer Corinne Day, 48, who twice changed fashion. Day introduced Kate Moss as a model and also was credited/blamed for the ‘90s “heroin chic” black-and-white photography that appeared to celebrate drugged grunge and anorexia. Her death was blamed on a brain tumor. The Telegraph said, “From the day of her collapse she urged her husband to take photographs of her, and he continued to record her experience throughout the long years of her treatment and eventual decline. ‘Photography,’ she said, ‘is getting as close as you can to real life, showing us things we don't normally see. These are people's most intimate moments, and sometimes intimacy is sad’.”

• A team of Pulitzer winners from The New York Times probed an apparent coverup of the hacking of phones belonging to Princes William and Harry, their aides and other Top People. Central to the furor is Andy Coulson, editor of the tabloid Sunday News of the World when the hacking occurred. He denies knowledge of hacking that sent his royals reporter and private eye to prison. Colleagues told The Times that Coulson is lying. It appears there will be new probes of Coulson’s role, the original investigation by London’s Metropolitan Police (Scotland Yard) as well as the expanding hacking complaints and denials.

News of the World has a close relationship with police. Its stories sometimes lead to investigations, prosecutions and convictions of high profile misdeeds. The paper — the pinnacle or abyss of London tabloid journalism — thrives on exposes of corrupt athletes, celebrity sexual hijinks, adultery, kinks and the like. Scotland Yard limited its hacking probe to phones used by royals and their aides. Hacking by News of the World was far wider than that, but police said they were busy with terrorists.

Juicy as that is, it gets better. News of the World is owned by Rupert Murdoch, whose Wall Street Journal is challenging The New York Times as a New York and national paper. In a statement, News of the World accused the Times magazine story of being motivated by commercial rivalry. It said: "The News of the World repeatedly asked The New York Times to provide evidence to support their allegations and they were unable to do so. Indeed, the story they published contained no new credible evidence and relied heavily on anonymous sources, contrary to the paper's own editorial guidelines. In so doing, they have undermined their own reputation and confirmed our suspicion their story was motivated by commercial rivalry. We reject absolutely any suggestion there was a widespread culture of wrongdoing at the News of the World."

The Times refused to assist Metropolitan Police or a parliamentary probe with information beyond that in its magazine story that prompted the new investigations.

Oh, and Andy Coulson, the former editor at the center of the new furor, is communications chief/official spinmeister for the new prime minister, Conservative David Cameron, at 10 Downing Street.

All that’s missing is lemon tarts diving nude into some lord’s country estate pool. Ah, but that’s another News of the World story.

• Accusations of bias against the BBC are nothing new. Whether Labour or Conservative, the party in power usually complains that the public broadcaster has its knife out. Recently, Britain’s New Statesman magazine elicited a mea culpa from the current BBC director general, Mark Thompson. "In the BBC I joined 30 years ago, there was, in much of current affairs, in terms of people's personal politics, which were quite vocal, a massive bias to the left. The organisation did struggle then with impartiality. ... Now it is a completely different generation. ... We have an honourable tradition of journalists from the right [working for us]. It is a broader church. The BBC is not a campaigning organisation and can't be, and actually the truth is that sometimes our dispassionate flavour of broadcasting frustrates people who have got very, very strong views, because they want more red meat. Often that plays as bias. People think: 'Why can't they come out and say they are bastards?' And that can play out on left and right.”

• Speaking of the BBC, whose World Service probably is the most trusted broadcaster anywhere, the weekly Economist recently noted that traditional Western short wave radio sources are losing their clout abroad to the Internet, new international broadcasters like Al Jazeera and local startups in local languages. It’s worth reading.

CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: editor@citybeat.com



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