Today in evil PR: A student loan company invents a guy who talked to journalists

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that LendEDU invented a guy named Drew Cloud to run The Student Loan Report, which purported to provide fun insight and good information about the burgeoning student loan industry.

Cloud was quoted by multiple media organizations, including MSNBC and The Washington Post. There was a picture of Cloud on the website, along with a bio describing him as a college graduate.

But Cloud isn’t real. And when The Chronicle had a hint he didn’t exist, someone at the site pretending to be Cloud lied when telling The Chronicle that Cloud “was traveling and had limited access to his account.”

Only now does The Student Loan Report acknowledge its sneakiness, saying it should have told everyone that Cloud was a pen name. But a “pen name” is one thing; it’s another to invent a plausible backstory, including the lie that Cloud “always had a knack for reporting throughout high school and college where he picked up his topics of choice.”

They also cite five times they mentioned the student loan company that owns them, LendEDU, without noting the relationship. (Ask Shawn Hannity about what happens when people find out.)

The discovery raises some questions:
1. The Student Loan Report claims its information is accurate. But if its staff can make up a person — and lie about it when caught — how can we trust what it says about student loans, especially with its ownership by a loan company? What credibility does it have now? Why would any news organization, especially ones burned, use its information?
2. Can we borrow money from its owner and pay back in counterfeit bills?

 

 

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

The Ethics of artificial intelligence: Platform magazine says public relations has to think about AI, too.

Artificial intelligence is slowly taking over the world. And, as usual, the technology is bounding far ahead of the law and the ethics.

In this Platform magazine article, student writer Skylar Spencer raises some of the questions that everyone — whether in the AI business or a consumer of AI-enhanced technology — ought to be asking. South Carolina’s Dr. Shannon Bowen discusses honesty, which is the basis for public relations and all ethical communication. The keeper of this blog says the same thing, with a hint of transparency.

And speaking of transparency: Platform magazine is sponsored by the The Plank Center for PR leadership, at the University of Alabama.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Figures lie and liars figure: Journalists should be wary of bias behind numbers

By Serena Bailey

Sesame Street's The Count
Sesame Street’s The Count knows you can count numbers, but you can’t always count on them to deliver truth.

In the immediate wake of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Florida, Everytown for Gun Safety, an advocacy group that works to reduce gun violence, tweeted that the Parkland shooting had been the 18th school shooting of the year. This statistic was shared by Bernie Sanders and New York mayor Bill de Blasio and was included in articles by Time, MSNBC, ABC News, Huffington Post and the BBC.

The problem, as The Washington Post pointed out, is that the statistic was wrong.

In defining “school shooting,” Everytown had chosen to include every incident where a gun is discharged on a school campus, according to The Washington Post. This included incidents such as a suicide on the grounds of a school that had been closed for seven months or someone firing off rounds from a gun in the parking lot of a Michigan school during a basketball game. In the latter case, no one was hurt and it was 8 p.m., but that counted as a school shooting in the eyes of Everytown. According to The Washington Post, only five of Everytown’s 18 shootings “happened during school hours and resulted in any physical injury.”

Everytown didn’t include how it defined school shootings in its tweet about the Parkland shooting. Not including that information can be problematic according to Dr. Scott Parrott, an assistant professor with the Department of Journalism & Creative Media at The University of Alabama.

“Numbers can be very powerful especially if you use them in charts and graphs and things like that because they can communicate information,” Parrott said. “You have to make sure that what you’re communicating to the general public is accurate. But not only that, you have to think ahead and anticipate the way they will interpret the information. So yeah, 18 school shootings is technically correct, but that’s not the way people are going to interpret it. They’re going think 18 mass shootings.”

Parrott said he worked for years at newspapers across the southeast, using statistics to tell stories about topics like heath, but in ways that would interest the readership. Now he teaches his students how to interpret and evaluate data they want to use in their news stories.

The most important step in evaluating data, according to Parrott, is to ask where the data was coming from, how it was collected and what motive might the data collectors have.

“You can ask questions in a certain way to elicit a response that you want,” he said. “You can ask what we call double-barrel questions where it could be interpreted two different ways. You can ask loaded questions that lead the person to respond a certain way.”

The first three rules in The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics call for journalists to “Take responsibility for the accuracy of their work,” “Verify information before releasing it” and “Remember that neither speed nor format excuses inaccuracy. Provide context. Take special care not to misrepresent or oversimplify.” Oversimplification, said Parrott is one of the biggest mistakes that journalists make when using data in news stories.

He also said that it’s easier now than ever, for journalists to use new tools and technologies to visualize data for readers. His advice, he said is that when using data, journalists should approach it as they would a human source.

“I treat it largely the same way I would if I was covering an event as a news reporter,” he said. “If I was just interviewing sources I’d be critical of the sources I interviewed and questions I asked and how I asked the questions. So you’ve got to do the same thing with data.”

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Associated Press stylebook needs to step it up on language for covering the disabled community

By Zoe Norberg

The Associated Press Stylebook
The Associated Press Stylebook

In the past several years, the Associated Press has added chapters ranging from social media to religion, and most recently, data journalism to the categorized section in the back of the AP Stylebook. Nevertheless, an in-depth chapter about the proper usage of disability language is absent from the stylebook––instead, this topic is covered in an entry spanning less than half of a page.

It is astounding that such a wide-spanning category as disability––which affects nearly 20 percent of the United States population, according to the National Service Inclusion Project––would be absent from the industry standard publication for journalistic style.

Especially in recent years, the Associated Press has made efforts to represent people within minority groups such as different nationalities, races, sexual orientations and religions; however, the news agency has fallen short in its coverage of people with disabilities within the style guide.

To compensate for the gaps left by the AP Stylebook, the National Center on Disability and Journalism (NCDJ) has created their own Disability Language Style Guide to assist journalists with the coverage of people living with disabilities. This guide contains specific wordage to use when discussing a person with almost any type of disability, including physical disabilities, hearing and visual impairments, mental and cognitive disabilities and seizure disorders. Additionally, it shows how the NCDJ’s standard aligns with the AP Stylebook’s suggestions––if there are any.

Diversity is one of the most important elements of modern journalism––so why does the AP Stylebook put so little effort into assuring that people with disabilities are properly represented in the media?

Without proper support and representation by national organizations such as the Associated Press, the disability community loses their voice and their right to decide how the public as a whole refers to them in news media.

Kristina Hicks, an intern with the University of Alabama’s Men’s Wheelchair Basketball team, said that this disparity is one of the biggest frustrations within the disability community.

“You wouldn’t use incorrect language to describe race or to describe sexuality,” Hicks said. “Just as those things aren’t a choice, having a disability isn’t a choice.”

In the same way that a person’s skin color or sexual orientation is a part of their identity, so is a person’s disability. By failing to refer to a person with a disability in the way they want to be represented, journalists are failing to acknowledge the identities of people in the disability community. In order to follow a commitment to diversity, news organizations must consider all of the people in their community. This includes the 48 million Americans who live with a disability.

In the SPJ Code of Ethics, the principle “Minimize Harm” directly states, “Ethical journalism treats sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect.”

“[People living with disabilities] deserve just as much respect as any human beings, because they are,” Hicks said.

Seeing as this is the case, the AP Stylebook is clearly falling flat in its efforts to support and respect a large portion of the public that it serves, which is an ethical failure by most journalistic standards.

Additionally, the Associated Press is failing the public by neglecting to follow through with its own statement of ethical principles, which proclaims that “the news organization should guard against inaccuracies, carelessness, bias or distortion…”

It is careless that a national news organization would leave parts of the disability community out of its standardized language guide for the journalism industry. Representation is a key factor in promoting diversity and equality throughout the media, and facilitating this representation by including all of the proper terms in the AP Stylebook is the first step to a more diverse and inclusive industry.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

The New York Times talks about its own diversity. Shouldn’t everyone else?

The New York Times issued a press release in March 2018 noting its commitment to diversity – and backing it up with statistics.

The nut graf:

Over the past three years, representation of women has increased at every level of The Times. Over all, our employees are now evenly split between men and women. Women in News and Opinion leadership increased to 46 percent in 2017, from 38 percent in 2015, and in business departments, to 46 percent, from 41 percent.

The trend is not as uniformly positive for people of color. There have been gains in places, including in business leadership, where people of color now make up 21 percent of the total, up from 16 percent in 2015. But gains like this have not been consistent…

Some thoughts on this:
* This isn’t required for newspapers for First Amendment reasons. (The rules are different for over-the-air broadcasters, who use public airwaves and are assumed to have obligations to the public.)
* This isn’t new for over-the-air broadcasters, whose reports to the Federal Communications Commission require diversity information. (Diversity seems more obvious for broadcasters, anyway, as viewers want to see people who look like them.)
* This isn’t required for cable broadcasters. Plenty of commenters, often with a left-leaning bent, have teed off on this.
* Most groups don’t issue press releases about this (or most other topics) unless it’s good news.
* The numbers aren’t so good nationally. The American Society of News Editors’ latest annual report shows continued backsliding, attributed to overall declines in news jobs.
* It’s just one part of a national conversation. CNN earlier this week reported that three Interior Department employees said its director, Ryan Zinke, repeatedly said that diversity isn’t important. The story said he followed with “what’s important is having the right person for the right job. (The problem with this is that a statement might suggest there can’t be both.) The agency denies the report.

Why does all of this matter? Talk among yourselves.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

How social media fed information about a Marine’s death

ABC13 KTRK, in Houston, Texas, published a news story online, as well as a video that aired on their nightly news where they had gained information through social media and fished family members friends list reaching out until someone responded. The story, filled with information based off of comments posted on Facebook was filled with numerous inaccuracies.

“Ethan Barclay-Weberpal grew up in Wisconsin, but we’re learning more about him from friends here in Houston,” Erica Simon, the ABC13 reporter, wrote.

Barclay-Weberpal was not friends with anyone in Houston, nor did he have family there, Casey Barclay, Barclay-Weberpal’s mother, said.

“Family members say Ethan was well-known and liked and now they are grieving the loss of their only son” Simon wrote.

Barclay-Weberpal had four siblings, according to his obituary, “[…] his 4 siblings – Logan, Dylan, Abigail, and Alexander,” published by the Whitcomb-Lynch funeral home, in Janesville, Wisconsin, where he was buried.

The news station took their information from a Facebook post made by Barclay-Weberpal’s father when he announced the death of his son.

“It’s with excruciating sadness and tears in my eyes that I’m writing this – my only son, my own blood, Marine PFC Ethan Andrew Barclay-Weberpal, was killed yesterday morning at Camp Pendleton, CA,” Scott Weberpal posted.

The news article and video was filled with pictures copied directly off of Facebook, and the interview was from a friend of a friend’s step mother’s husband who happened to live in Houston, said Barclay. The man interviewed had never met Barclay-Weberpal, nor had he even visited Houston.

News outlets using social media as a credible source is becoming a more prevalent problem as information is becoming available in bulk on the sites first.

In a study conducted by Cision at George Washington University, it was found that 65 percent of journalist admit to using social media as a way to gain information when writing a story.

It was also reported that only 49 percent believe that, “social media suffers from a lack of fact- checking, verification and reporting standards,” according to the survey.

The issue surrounding using social media as a reliable source goes back to the basic code of ethics presented by the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ). It clearly states that journalist should seek truth and report it, meaning that they take personal responsibility in ensuring that their work is fact-checked to the best of their ability.

When professionals stray from the code of ethics it creates distrust in the media as well as sets a bad precedent for what is acceptable in reporting.

Meredith Cummings, an instructor of journalism at The University of Alabama and the director of scholastic media, envies the European model of journalism surrounding major news events.

“They have a 24-hour hands-off rule,” Cumming’s said. “It would never work in the U.S., but for them, it stops so many of the issues surrounding getting information from social media because it gives the reporters time to do their research and check their facts.”

Many errors made in journalism are basic human error. Journalist do not intentionally set out to be malicious. However, social media has increased the need to be the first to deliver the news. As a result, some journalist have become willing to bend their own codes of ethics in order to produce their story.

“It’s important to remember that journalism is not presenting information,” Cumming’s said. “It’s presenting information in context.”

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Lying ethics and ethical lying: How effective communication is a twisted business

By Mackenzie McClintock

Start with constant criticism from high-profile government officials about news coverage. Then mix in increasingly prevalent screams of “Fake News!” directed at the media.

That breaking news statistics piece was also slightly incorrect due to the source’s miscalculation, so issue an apology statement. The story will stir itself and result in a sloppy comment section where the writer is torn apart for someone else’s mistake.

Cook until it is so overdone that journalists are as confused as ever as to how to do their jobs.

The average person expects journalists to tell the truth in an unbiased way. The only thing wrong with that is the incredible pressure it puts on journalists to be perfect.

Their ethical standards must be set so high that they may often fall short in the public’s eye. Many journalists who would never mislead or lie can make a mistake in their reporting and count on having it turned into a mockery of a hashtag on social media.

The interesting, possibly slightly awkward, realization is how often the average person lies. While some accuse journalists of fraudulent work, experts have found people lie each day for various reasons.

Robert Feldman, a professor of psychology and brain sciences at University of Massachusetts Amherst, discussed lying in an interview with Allure Magazine where he simplified how often it occurs.

“Lying is so much a part of everyday discourse that we do it without thinking about it,” Feldman said. “What’s really interesting is you can ask somebody to look back on a conversation, and invariably they’ll say, ‘I was totally truthful.’ Show them a video, and they’ll find that’s just not the case.”

The thought of lying may make some journalists hot and sweaty, while others could see themselves lying in specific situations. Threats to national security, cases of sexual assault and reporting undercover could all result in an ethical dilemma with lying or maintaining anonymity.

Thomas G. Plante, who holds a doctorate in clinical psychology, wrote several years ago in a blog post for Psychology Today about these resulting, twisted ethical decisions because of the way lies can affect and hurt other people.

“When it comes to making ethical decisions we need to balance the pros and cons of using multiple approaches to ethics in order to figure out what the right thing to do really is,” Plante said. “Sometimes different ethical approaches conflict. When they do, certain values or approaches must trump others. So, compassion might trump honesty on occasion.”

Opinions on the ethical implications of lying for journalists and non-media members could be completely different, but that does not erase the fact that people do tell small lies every day. The tendency for people to embellish their speech, or lie to impress others, means journalists may need to check their sources even more than they already do.

Lying can be a useful tool in communication, said Darrin Griffin, who holds a doctorate in communication, and is an assistant professor at the University of Alabama in communication studies. He also is a co-author of a book on the subject, “Lying and Deception in Human Interaction.”

Griffin noted those who use lying and deception effectively in communication are not seen as liars by others because they consider the ethical implications of telling the truth.

“If you just relied on truth-telling in your life you’d be completely ineffective as a communicator,” Griffin said. “Effective communicators rely on all of their tools to achieve their goals, but the ethical part is they consider the goals of their counterparts and the ethics of the situation: Who wins? Who loses? Who might get hurt? So ethical communicators, who are effective, rely on deception in a way in which other people would deem them to be appropriate.”

Among the messy recipes for solving ethical dilemmas, journalists have no choice but to mash together a response for difficult situations as they consult their colleagues and codes of ethics along the way. It may be important for those outside the newsroom to remember, however, that journalists have feelings, too.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Ram ad was bad, but Bell Pottinger story shows worse persuasion ethics

Discussions of the fundamental flaws of a Super Bowl truck ad are soaring higher today than any missed field goal during the game played Sunday, Feb. 4, 2018.

But that’s not the bigger story in persuasion ethics today.

You’ll read much righteous indignation of the ad that peddled Ram trucks using Dr. Martin Luther King’s voice, recorded precisely 50 years to the day, from his Drum Major speech.

The ad superimposed do-gooders using Ram trucks while helping others, with audio of King riffing from Matthew 20, in which Jesus reminded followers that the “first shall be last” and true leaders are actually servants.

Missing from the ad is exactly what King said in that speech about advertising. (For fun, hear his words above the ad’s video):

Now the presence of this instinct explains why we are so often taken by advertisers. You know, those gentlemen of massive verbal persuasion. And they have a way of saying things to you that kind of gets you into buying. In order to be a man of distinction, you must drink this whiskey. In order to make your neighbors envious, you must drive this type of car. In order to be lovely to love you must wear this kind of lipstick or this kind of perfume. And you know, before you know it, you’re just buying that stuff. That’s the way the advertisers do it.

Two of King’s children say a third sibling made the deal without their knowledge. The two see the real ethical rub: Using King’s words to do precisely what King railed against.

This dustup, however, seems to pale in comparison to another example of what can be the perversion of persuasion: How a British public relations firm intentionally sowed racial discord for a shady, wealthy client.

The New York Times‘ tick-tock shows how Bell Pottinger, a “P.R. firm for despots and rogues,” deliberately heightened racial tension in South Africa to aid men from India using their political contacts to make money in that nation. The firm collapsed after clients pulled out, appalled by tactics that even included efforts that harmed other clients.

What makes it worse: Unlike traditional advertising that everyone can see and know the original source, public relations efforts often are part of an “unseen power” that hides its true motives, payments, and practices.

For anyone who cares about ethics, the money quote in The Times story comes from Tim Bell, the founder of the firm:

“Morality is a job for priests. Not P.R. men,” he said.

Actually, morality is a job for everyone, but not just because higher-minded clients will rebel.

People who don’t think their morality matters — and that it’s OK as long as the checks clear — ought not be in the media business. It’s as true for persuaders as it is for the news business, as the folks at the late News of the World and Gawker.com can attest.

At the end of the day, good ethics has a relationship with good business.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Tom Brady, and why it’s best to leave 5-year-old children out of it

By Chris Roberts

Kindergarten teachers 1 will tell you that their real job isn’t to teach math and the alphabet. The real job is teaching 5-year-olds that the world does not revolve around them.

This is an important lesson for all of us, and it’s best if learned early.

The second rule is actually second on the list of All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, by the late Robert Fulghum: “Play fair.”

Some talking guys at WEEI radio learned the consequences of breaking the second rule this week, after one host called the daughter of the NFL’s premiere quarterback an “annoying little pissant.” The criticism came after watching a clip of the 5-year-old acting like a typical 5-year-old, seeking his dad’s attention in a typically annoying way.

The station cut ties with the 25-year-old speaker, Alex Reimer.

The Boston Globe reports that Brady cut short an interview on Monday, Jan. 29, 2017, with the station, which has close ties to the New England Patriots with its “Patriots Monday” focus. Brady called it “very disappointing” to hear it. “”My daughter, or any child, they certainly don’t deserve that,” he said.

Brady is no angel, and on Jan. 21 his curse toward a camera operator before the start of a conference championship was amplified for the world to hear. Brady understands media, using it and being used by it in a symbiotic way.

But it doesn’t take a media-savvy person to know it’s not good to unnecessarily criticize a 5-year-old. All it takes is being the parent of a 5-year-old — or, a 5-year-old with a good kindergarten teacher.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Privacy for young adults and the importance of dumb mistakes

For then-Michigan student Jim Reische, the mistake was spraypainting “Corporate Cheeseburgers” on a McDonald’s building. For then-Alabama student Chris Roberts, the mistake(s) showed up regularly in The Crimson White, where I wrote a Friday column – often with no idea when I sat down at the keyboard on a Thursday afternoon. It was a self-enforced exercise in creativity on deadline, but a few thousand people likely read them and winced as hard as I did when I saw them in cold print.

The good news for both Reische and me – and millions before the internet – was that our mistakes were largely hidden.

But the internet makes even immature voices as loud as every other voice, and gives the world a voice to respond and and insult the immature. As Reische wrote in The New York Times: “In this climate, there is little room for students to experiment and screw up. We seem to expect them to arrive at school fully formed. When they let us down by being just what they are — young humans — we shame them.”

In thinking about privacy, it is good to consider a Ferdinand Schoeman, whose definition in the 2001 Encyclopedia of Ethics included  “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 an autonomous agent” (2001, p. 1382).

Sometimes, young people deserve a break.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather