Photos can put unnecessary tragedy on display

Imagine a family that had barely come to understand the tragic death of their son when local news stations started publishing photos from the car accident. Images spread across the community and are quickly adopted by national outlets as well. Pictures of his death are now spread across the nation and circulated through social media accounts. These photos showed the scrapes from the pavement he fell on, the bruises that covered his once bare face, and his bones are twisted in a terrifying position.

These are the last photos people will see of him.

This is one instance when I do not agree with the publication of photos showing violence or death. These photos are painful and graphic, and the story could have been told without photographic evidence.

Journalists should be respectful to the families and friends still grieving from these horrific events. They deserve the same courtesy that you would want if the roles were reversed.

According to Society of Professional Journalism Code of Ethics, the Society declares four principles as the foundation of ethical journalism. This ethical dilemma brings to light the one principle about minimizing harm.

Three points mentioned in SPJ Code of Ethics that are relevant to this case include: “balance the public’s need for information against potential harm and discomfort; show compassion for those affected by coverage; and consider the long-term implications by publication.”

The long-term implications of these photos can hurt court cases as well.

“There are certain photos that will be thrown out of a case if the judge believes they will be viewed as unfair or biased, but the media will sometimes still post these photos to their audience,” said Rachel Parker, graduate student at the University of Alabama. “This can be damaging if you have a jury trial because these photos could taint their judgment, which is exactly what the judge was trying to avoid.”

So how can people justify publishing photos of violence and death?

It depends on the circumstance. With consideration to the event mentioned earlier, it seems unethical to post those photos. However, I understand when it appears to be necessary in specific situations like when describing the impact of war and treatment of others.

Certain photos can be used as a tool to bring insight on a controversial topic. People are unable to hide from the issue once they have been presented evidence.

Also, I believe having influential photos may encourage people to speak out and help prevent these events from happening again.

This is relevant with animals as well. The release of photos and videos showing the violent treatment of some animals has helped increase awareness. The Dodo Impact is one organization that has a strong presence in media.

According to their website, they publish videos and articles about people who help by providing animals with care and affection. This coverage receives attention through social media, which inspires more people to help other animals in need.

I feel stronger emotions towards an issue once I see proof of it happening compared to reading about the event. It can be difficult to decide which news organization to trust, which is why photographs can be a powerful resource.

For example, the pictures shown of the earthquake in Mexico includes injured people being pulled out of the rubble as buildings fall apart. They bring a new level of understanding to tragedy whether it’s an earthquake or violent crime. These photos are shown to help explain the severity of what is actually happening.

I believe there is an alternative to this ethical dilemma, which would allow media outlets to display these photos with more sensitivity. News organizations can cover graphic photos with an overlay and warning so that the reader has to click on the image to view the content.


Rachel Parker



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Sen. Ted Cruz’s Twitter scandal reveals misguided motivations

Last week saw the aftermath of two destructive hurricanes, controversy over DACA’s legal status, and threats of nuclear war. Somehow, amid these monumental events, the issue which has the internet buzzing has nothing to do with life-altering instances and everything to do with Sen. Ted Cruz’s Twitter account.

In the waning hours of Monday, Sept. 11, the internet was alight as news that Cruz’s official Twitter account “liked” a pornographic site went viral. Within hours, Cruz’s senior communications adviser Catherine Frazier tweeted that the post was deleted and reported to Twitter, but by then Cruz had once again become the object of both jeers.

“It was a staffing issue,” Cruz told reporters the following day. “And it was inadvertent, it was a mistake. It was not a deliberate act.”

That’s where this story should have ended.

Instead of reporting Cruz’s statement and refocusing Americans on more pressing matters facing the nation, news sources from The Washington Post to CNN to Politico continued to dig into this story, using the word “blame” in their headlines to describe Cruz’s statement. These journalists knew articles with scandalous headlines including “senator,” “blame” and “porn” would keep the clicks coming.

Cruz’s Twitter slip-up and the media’s response bring to the forefront an age-old ethical question: how do we as journalists decide whether a story should be pursued?

Whether spoken or internalized, everyone lives by codes which guide their decisions. Along with personal convictions, journalists are fortunate to have a written code of ethics to help them decided what to write and how to write it.

According to the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, journalists have an obligation to minimize harm when possible. Given Cruz’s public status and negative legislative stance on sexual self-pleasure, the fact that his Twitter account “liked” and thus spread throughout Twitter this pornographic post was significant. Journalist needed to report this news.

However, once it was made clear that this “like” was not of Cruz’s personal doing and that the matter was being handled internally, media outlets should have reported these new facts and allowed the issue to settle.

Dr. Will Nevin, an entertainment journalist for, explained his motivations when deciding whether to dig deeper into an issue.

“I ask myself if there’s some angle that I think is unexplored,” Nevin said. “Is there some prospective or point of view that is unexplored. Let’s paint a picture of reality and not of some explosive unreality.”

By keeping this story alive with new content delving into Cruz’s past, journalists do more harm to Cruz than good for his constituents. These reporters are not revealing some new, hypocritical aspect of Cruz or exploring a new aspect of the issue. They are exploiting the facts that Cruz has become Jimmy Kimmel’s latest punchline and that sex always sells.

What a journalist writes is what her audience thinks about. Readers are harmed when news outlets choose to steer their attention away from important matters and toward stories that entertain but hold no real substance.

“With everything going on today, I almost feel disrespected by how big this Cruz porn thing got,” University of Alabama senior Mary Muffly said. “It shows that news outlets don’t care as much about telling us what we need to know as they do about how many people are reading their stuff.”

The decision to pursue a story further should be based in ethics and a desire to inform the reader. As evident this week, that decision is too often guided by a desire for clicks instead.

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When you write ‘reform,’ the propagandists win

British politician John Bright pushed bills to change England’s Corn Laws in the 1800s. The word ‘reform’ is fine in a political cartoon but troublesome in neutral reporting.

As the Trump administration this week proposes changes to the nation’s tax system, here’s a reminder to journalists and talking heads: When you use the word “reform” without putting it in quotation marks and attributing the phrase to the person or document using the word, then the propagandists win.

The etymology of the word “reform” obviously means to make changes to something. But the Oxford English Dictionary notes that, since 1606, it also has included the meaning that changes would “remove errors, abuses, or other hindrances to proper performance.”

And that’s the problem. Whether it’s “tax reform” or “tort reform” or any other change, the proponents for change use the word “reform” to imply that the changes will be better. The Associated Press style guide’s entry on the word “reform”  tells writers to be careful when “deciding whether reform is the appropriate word or whether a more neutral term is better.”

When journalists use the word “reform” without attribution, they tacitly accept the propagandists’ argument that the proposed changes are good. Journalists, who above all else understand the power of words, should know better. Whether the opponents make good arguments or not, objective journalists put their thumbs on the scales when they write “tax reform” outside of quotes because it makes opponents seem opposed to what is good.

It’s already happening: A search on the term “tax reform” found 560,000 results today, many more than the 378,000 results for “tax plan.”

A quick look at news coverage shows some offenders: CNBC, CNBC, The Washington Post and Politico, for example. Others, such as, were inconsistent.

Others are doing it right, such as the Associated Press, Reuters, The New York Times’ main story on the rollout, which includes the neutral phrase “tax plan” and only used “reform” when quoting a proponent. (Still, an headline on an opinion piece was sucked in, although that may be OK for an opinion story.)

Yes, more cumbersome phrases such as “proposed changes to the nation’s tax laws” or “tax plan” may not be be as friendly in a headline — and certainly don’t work as well as “tax reform” in search-engine optimized headlines. News organizations might want to include “tax reform” as a metatag and keywords to help readers find those stories, but keep it out of the article when not in quotation marks and attributed to a speaker.

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Project Voco, a new voice editing technology, raises ethical questions

By Peyton Shepherd

Media outlets have faced mounting discontent from some of their readership concerned about biased reporting, and the continued development of editing software has the potential to fan the “fake news” flames.

In November, computer software company Adobe premiered an add-on to its audio editing program that has the capability to accurately replicate human speech patterns. Project Voco, lauded at the demonstration as the “Photoshop of speech,” is an artificially intelligent voice manipulation software that, after analyzing a 20-minute voice sample, can reproduce any word in the speaker’s voice in a matter of minutes.

Experts are divided on the technology, with some worrying about the ethical implications on fields like journalism that rely heavily on digital evidence.

“It seems that Adobe’s programmers were swept along with the excitement of creating something as innovative as a voice manipulator, and ignored the ethical dilemmas brought up by its potential misuse,” said Eddie Borges Rey, a lecturer in media and technology at the University of Sterling, in an interview with the BBC.

Rey said Voco would be met with the same hesitation as Photoshop was upon its respective launch in 1990. The two programs enable users to substantially alter journalistic source material while ultimately changing the narrative those materials can portray.

Despite the program’s unveiling, Voco is still in development. Adobe has promised safety measures like watermarking detection in the future, and it has yet to be disclosed whether the product will be made commercially available.

“[It] may or may not be released as a product or product feature,” an Adobe spokesperson told the BBC. “No ship date has been announced.”

Even before the development of Voco and other artificial intelligence-based editing software, American media has often faced accusations of misrepresentation due to heavy-handed editing practices in text, audio and video alike.

Most recently, Breitbart editor and alt-right personality Milo Yiannopoulos said he was portrayed in negative light when video surfaced on Monday that showed him stating his apparent support for pedophilic relationships. In a response posted on Facebook, Yiannopoulos claimed the video was “edited deceptively”:

“As to some of the specific claims being made, sometimes things tumble out of your mouth on these long, late-night live-streams [sic], when everyone is spit-balling [sic],, that are incompletely expressed or not what you intended,” Yiannopoulos wrote. “Nonetheless, I’ve reviewed the tapes that appeared last night in their proper full context and I don’t believe they say what is being reported.”

Yiannopoulos is far from the first political figure to point a finger at faulty editing practices in media coverage. However, with the advent of user-friendly editing softwares like Project Voco, Yiannopoulos’ claims, among others, could invite speculation as journalists face increased temptation to cut and crop the perfect story.

Though journalists have multiple sources for both fabricating and altering information at their disposal, many avoid their use in practice.

Andrea Mabry, a journalism instructor at the University of Alabama and freelance photographer, said she refrains from teaching or using Photoshop in journalistic work for anything other than resizing photos and fixing minor technical issues.

“The point of photojournalism is to show what actually happened in the moment, or as close to it as possible,” Mabry said. “To alter that is to alter the truth, and journalists are called to seek the truth.”
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Lying for the sake of truth is still a lie

When I tell people I’m studying journalism, they have one of two reactions. Their eyes light up and they comment on how this is an incredible time to be in the field, or their eyes narrow and they ask whether I want to work for Fox or MSNBC.

I’m also studying political science and education systems. I’m used to defending my fields from skeptics, but journalism takes a special kind of defense. It is an industry widely known for projects that, to some, inherently defy its values.

Nellie Bly feigned mental illness in 1887 to land in an institution so she could write first-hand about the horrible conditions.

In introductory journalism classes, students learn about Nellie Bly’s investigation of a mental institution and ABC’s Food Lion investigation, among others. These stories are a fraction of all the journalism in the history of the United States, much less the world, but they stick with media consumers. Journalism ethicists still debate the merits of lying to tell the truth.

A collaboration with NYU Libraries archives information about undercover reporting. The database stems from research that “argues that much of the valuable journalism since before the U.S. Civil War has emerged from investigations that employed subterfuge to expose wrong.”  The editor, Brooke Kroeger, goes on to say some may consider undercover journalism to be unethical, but it “embodies a central tenet of good reporting–to extract significant information or expose hard-to-penetrate institutions or social situations that deserve the public’s attention.”

In an editorial for the Columbia Journalism Review, Greg Marx discussed the ethics of James O’Keefe’s 2010 interference with Senator Mary Landrieu’s phone system. O’Keefe said what he did was no more unethical than the work of an investigative journalist. Marx said that O’Keefe’s actions weren’t exactly journalism, but even if they were, calling something journalism doesn’t make it ethical.

“Overreliance on sting operations and subterfuge can weaken the public’s trust in the media and compromise journalists’ claim to be truth-tellers,” Marx said.

While these examples of undercover reporting are big lies, journalists lie in small ways too. Using pseudonyms or initials in a profile of a victim of domestic violence, for example, is also a lie to tell the truth. These small lies, if you believe there are such things, may result from following an organization’s code of ethics. If an editor and a journalist looked at the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, they might determine that changing a name better served the “Minimize Harm” tenet and outweighed printing the name to uphold “Seek Truth and Report It.”

In an editorial originally published in the April 1997 RTDNA Communicator, Bob Steele searches for middle ground. He recounts the Food Lion story and discusses the weight of using tools like secret recordings and hidden cameras.

“These tools have extremely sharp edges, and when improperly used they harm innocent people and erode journalistic integrity,” Steele said. “When these tools are overused they become dull, losing their impact.”

This perspective aligns with a pragmatic view of journalism ethics. Journalists should be aware that there isn’t always a clear answer whether what they’re doing is right or wrong, but they do have a responsibility to work through a code of ethics or other framework to justify their decision.

Additionally, journalists should consider the affect their work will have on consumers’ perceptions of the industry. It is vital that consumers trust journalists. They don’t have to trust every reporter or every outlet, but dishonesty from one journalist reflects poorly on them all.

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‘S-town’ podcast raises an s-load of ethical questions

By Mary Shannon Wells

Even if you didn’t listen to it yourself, the murder mystery podcast “Serial,” which was monumental for both investigative journalism and the podcast platform, got a lot of media attention. Despite its popularity, “Serial” brought with it some ethical issues for the field of investigative journalism, which often hangs out in the grey area of media ethics.

Last week, “Serial’s” producer Julie Snyder released a new podcast series in full. This time, Snyder teamed up with Brian Reed, producer for “This American Life.” The new podcast is called “S-Town,” and in the beginning, it seems to be heading in the same murder mystery direction as its predecessor. But by the second episode — warning, spoilers ahead — it’s clear that “S-Town” is much different than “Serial.” Like “Serial,” however, “S-Town” has its own ethical implications.

A little background: “S-Town” follows a man named John B. McLemore, who lives in Woodstock, Alabama, or as he likes to call it, “Shittown,” hence the name of the podcast. I won’t go into too much detail, but McLemore is what many people would call “eccentric,” and what Southern people would call “a character.”

“This is brilliant, meaningful, ambitious podcasting with the potential to elevate the medium,” wrote Aja Romano in a piece for Vox.

What starts out as a look into a murder McLemore wants Reed to solve becomes an up-close view of the quirky, unstable life of McLemore, a queer antique clock restorer with a hedge maze in his backyard who seems to have jumped straight out of a Southern novel.

Regardless how interesting McLemore’s story, “S-Town” raised many ethical eyebrows, even of those that enjoyed the piece.

“Occasionally, you may feel a twinge of ethical doubt as Reed digs up secrets, conducts potentially incriminating interviews and blithely presents disturbing details,” warned Spencer Kornhaber in The Atlantic.

Kornhaber wasn’t the only one writing about his discomfort with “S-Town.”

“Early on, I wondered if it was right to be holding a microphone up to McLemore and broadcasting him to the world,” wrote Sara Larson in The New Yorker.

The biggest ethical questions come about after the second episode, in which — here’s the spoiler — Reed receives a call that McLemore has commited suicide.

“When I got to that point in the series, I wondered if they should have made this podcast at all, no matter how tempting its details, no matter how sensitively it was handled,” Larson wrote.

So the bomb is dropped — our main character, our main link to this murder mystery in nowhere Alabama, is dead. How does the podcast continue without McLemore’s voice? Romano was deeply disturbed by the ethical and emotional implications this caused for the podcast.

“But it’s also journalism exploring the life of a private citizen who struggled intensely with mental health issues and never had a chance to consent to some of the facts that S-Town reveals about him,” Romano wrote. “As I listened to the podcast’s final episodes, I really struggled with this aspect of the narrative, feeling as though I was violating the privacy of a man who had explicitly invited Reed to investigate a death — never his own.”

Romano brought up multiple facets of the story that raised ethical issues. At the front of the lines crossed by Reed was the issue of privacy. Should Reed have continued pursuing McLemore’s story after he died?

The “Doing Ethics in Media: Theories and Practical Applications” textbook, written by Jay Black and Chris Roberts, cites Ferdinand Schoeman’s definition of privacy:

“When privacy embraces some aspects of autonomy, it is defined as control over the intimacies of personal identity. At the broadest end of the spectrum, privacy is thought to be the measure of the extent to which an individual is afforded the social and legal space to develop the emotional, cognitive, spiritual, and moral powers of the autonomous agent.”

Even looking at Reed’s actions with Schoeman’s widest lenses, Reed violated McLemore’s privacy. And under the Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics’ stipulation to “minimize harm,” journalists should not invade a source’s privacy.

Reed not only kept chasing after the details of McLemore’s life, but he published information that McLemore asked him to keep off the record when he was alive. But do dead people have a right to privacy? Reed thought, at least in McLemore’s case, no. Romano said that Reed gave three reasons for revealing that information.

“First, he’s had on-the-record corroboration from other people about the substance of John’s comments. Second, the information John shared led to a greater understanding of who he was,” Romano wrote of Reed’s justifications. “And third, since John is an atheist, he doesn’t believe in afterlife repercussions, so according to his own belief, he’s dead and buried and can’t be hurt by any of this information.”

Although Reed believed that “trying to understand another person is a worthwhile thing to do,” his longing to correctly and fully tell McLemore’s story brings up other ethical questions, too. Is Reed too loyal to McLemore? While journalists always owe a certain level of loyalty to their sources, too much loyalty could end up in a story that is skewed in the source’s favor and that doesn’t give the general public the most honest and true version of that story.

“But S-Town finds true novelty as the true-crime narrative and touristic vibe fades and Reed starts obsessing over McLemore himself,” Kornhaber wrote. “The results are a monument to one man’s life.”

The unique nature of the podcast and Reed’s pursuit of McLemore’s story sparked my interest to wonder about Reed’s motives. Teleology, or consequentialism, is an ends-to-a-means-based practice in decision-making. Even though “S-Town” is already a topic of conversation in its first week, does the podcast’s success justify Reed’s sticky steps in an ethical gray area? According to different facets of consequentialism, probably so. As long as the end-result is beneficial, it doesn’t matter what means brought about that end. But is “S-Town” for the greater good of all people, or does it provide more good than it does harm for people, including McLemore? In utilitarianism, a synonym for consequentialism, the actions taken to reach the endpoint or “payoff” can be justified, regardless of ethical implications.

And in talking about consequentialism, it’s hard to ignore that loyalties come up again. Is Reed only being loyal to himself to gain fame or money from the podcast, therefore falling to egoism? Or did he do the “right thing” because “S-Town” could be a compelling innovation for the furtherance of podcasts as a medium for investigative journalism?

For that matter, should “S-Town” even be considered journalism? Or is it purely for entertainment?

Writing a series of questions in a row seems like an attempt at achieving a higher word count, but “doing ethics” requires asking tough questions. These are the kinds of questions that ethical dilemmas bring about, and mediums like podcasts (and the ethical issues they raise) will continue to alter the fluid definition of journalism.

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Lying in the name of faith (and politics) is always wrong

The New York Times reports about the Davidson College graduate who bought the expired ChristianTimesNewspaperDotCom domain (which we won’t link to here) and posted this story:

“BREAKING: ‘Tens of thousands’ of fraudulent Clinton votes found in Ohio warehouse.”

It wasn’t true. He made it up, including stealing a photo published by a real newspaper. He made thousands of dollars via Google ads placed on the site.

The results:
* Nearly 6 million people saw the lie.
* The lie was pushed around the Internet by people linking to it and remarking on it, eager to believe the lie.
* An Ohio country elections board announced an investigation.
* Ohio’s secretary of state had to issue a statement denying the lie.
* Google figured out what was going on and won’t let the site use its ad service anymore.

And the 25-year-old former political science and economics student, at least in The Times’ story, didn’t seem to fully understand the problem:

Asked whether he felt any guilt at having spread lies about a presidential candidate, Mr. Harris grew thoughtful. But he took refuge in the notion that politics is by its nature replete with exaggerations, half-truths and outright whoppers, so he was hardly adding much to the sum total.
“Hardly anything a campaign or a candidate says is completely true,” he said.

The fact that politicians don’t communicate “completely true” things doesn’t mean it’s ethically OK, of course.

In a world where we talk about ethics as a “rainbow of gray,” this is a no-brainer. If no one has ever told you, then you read it here first: “It’s wrong to make up stuff that people might believe. And it’s particularly wrong to do it under the aegis of religion.”

Lying, especially under a Christian name, reminds me of a 1980s Eddie Murphy routine about the guy who shot Pope John Paul II in May 1981:

“I guess the guy figured, ‘Hey look, I want to go to Hell and I don’t wanna stand in no line with everybody. .. . I wanna take the Hell Express. . .You walk up to the door with your ticket, they say, ‘Shot the Pope? You can go right through, man.’”

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Going undercover-ish to report that athletes have sex while at the Olympics?

TDB_swipingApparently, The Daily Beast thinks it’s newsworthy enough to go undercover and find out whether athletes not only have sex with athletes while at the Games, and whether athletes will meet non-athletes, too.

A reporter used social media tools to see who might meet up with him. Most of the respondents are gay, which when reported can be a problem for athletes from nations where being gay is illegal or perceived to be immoral.

The Daily Beast’s editor has apologized and made some changes after the original posting, but many in the journalism world still say it’s unethical.

Slate calls out the work as “sleazy, dangerous, and wildly unethical.” Salon calls it “reporting gone wrong.”

The reporter says he didn’t lie–sort of:

For the record, I didn’t lie to anyone or pretend to be someone I wasn’t—unless you count being on Grindr in the first place—since I’m straight, with a wife and child. I used my own picture (just of my face…) and confessed to being a journalist as soon as anyone asked who I was.

And squirrels don’t look like squirrels, unless you count those fuzzy tails.

Sissela Bok’s classic Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life comes in handy with its three-part model to justify lying:

1. Are there alternative actions to resolve the dilemma without lying?
If no, then move to Question 2:

2. What are the moral reasons for and against the lie?
If reasons for seem to outweigh reasons against, then move to Question 3:

3. As a test of the two steps, what would a public of reasonable people say about the lie.
If the test of publicity passes, then maybe it’s OK to lie.


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Why is ethics compliance training a waste of time? Mostly, because it’s not about ethics

Slate says corporate ethics training is generally stupid — a waste of time with case studies designed to cover the boss’ backsides while not really dealing with real issues.

Its key takeaway:

Regulators pressure companies to implement training programs in hopes of reducing corporate crime and malfeasance. Executives implement training programs in hopes of protecting themselves against lawsuits and prosecution. Employees see through executives’ motivations and ignore, or even rebel against, the lessons of the trainings.

What Slate doesn’t say is why: There’s not much ethics involved in most moral training. Most corporate ethics training is disguised legal training — the minimum standards of what you must do or not do to keep yourself, your boss and your company out of trouble.

Legal training is necessary, but it’s nowhere sufficient. If this were not true, then Doing Ethics in Media: Theories and Practical Applications would have ended at Chapter 2 instead of Chapter 13.

Ethics is ultimately about moral development. And as James Rest and his colleagues have shown, moral development has four components:

  • moral sensitivity – the ability to identify the ethical dimensions of a situation.
  • moral judgment – the ability to decide what action is the most morally justified.
  • moral motivation – making sure that the desire to follow that decision, instead of taking another path. (It’s one thing to know what’s right. It’s something else to do it.)
  • moral character – working to remain moral throughout your life.

Until ‘ethics’ training actually deals with ethics, let’s find another name for it.

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