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 news.google.com 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 FoxNews.com, 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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Cartoonist fired for biting the hand that feeds his publication

This cartoon led to Rick Friday losing his freelance job after publishing more than 1,000 cartoons for a farming publication.

A herd of media are writing about Rick Friday, who was fired from Farm News, a weekly publication of The Fort Dodge (Iowa) Messenger, after it published this cartoon pointing out that the CEOs of three men who run major farming-focused corporations earned a combined $53 million in 2015, as much as 2,129 Iowa farmers.

Reports say a major advertiser was upset by the cartoon and pulled its advertising. The paper is owned by Ogden Newspapers Inc., a privately held West Virginia chain.

A few of the issues raised include:
* Editorial independence. If a big advertiser can push you around, then who else can?
* Editorial judgment. If this sort of cartoon was going to be a problem, then why not bring it up before it’s published?* Loyalties. Savvy readers now know who will win when there’s a threat.
* Traditional threats to niche publications and magazines, who more likely face a narrow set of potential advertisers.

This last point addresses the key issue of money, which is drying up in the news business. It seems harder to be ethical when losing a major advertiser becomes even more of an existential threat.

There’s a famous quote from a 20th-century newspaper chain owner that goes something like this: “It’s OK to lose your top advertiser. Just don’t lose your second.”

In this new millennium, losing a top advertiser may be enough to kill you. But it’s becoming clear that the threat of losing a top advertiser is enough to put a kink in your ethics.

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AppSumo and Michael J. Fox: An online marketer makes a solid apology

If you’re in mass media or sales or nearly any other activity involving humans, write this down: Don’t make fun of sick people.

AppSumo, an online selling company that relies on emails and clever writing, learned that lesson this week. Its April 25 email peddling a product included a joke involving Michael J. Fox, who in 1998 made public his diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease. (He has been known to make jokes at his own expense, such as this appearance on Curb Your Enthusiasm. (note some bad language.))

AppSumo’s line: “We’ve all taken a photo or video that looks like Michael J. Fox was behind the lens.”









To its credit, the company quickly apologized and said it would donate profits on sales of the Pocket Tripod (a small iPhone stand) to Fox’s non-profit for Parkinson’s research.

In our poor attempt at imitative humor, we crossed the line and in the process offended many of you, our Sumo-ling family.

It was by no means in our intention to belittle a disease as serious as Parkinson’s – a condition that affects nearly 10 million people around the world. There were a thousand other ways to crack that particular joke and it’s unfortunate that we chose the one we did.

While we know this is only a first step, we are donating all the profits from the Pocket Tripod offer directly to The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research.

We are also updating our email review process to make sure this never happens again.

Once again, our deepest apologies, and we promise to do better next time.

The company’s fast response checked off all four elements of a good apology:

  1. Express remorse.
  2. Admit responsibility.
  3. Make amends.
  4. Be strategic in showing how it won’t happen again.

Michael J. Fox may have no Elvis in him, but I’m bet he’s pleased at the result.

The moral: Mistakes are inevitable. How you deal with them defines your morality to yourself and others.

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