Sunday, May 26, 2013

What would ethical disaster coverage look like?

Hallie Workman

It's been almost two weeks since an EF-4 tornado hit Grandbury, Texas -- about 40 miles from where I go to school. I went to Grandbury the next day, and since then, I've been trying to sort through what I saw. I went not to look at the damage, but to watch the hordes of TV crews and reporters that flocked there.

I'm still not sure what to make of what I saw. There was one ranch in particular where all of the news trucks seemed to gather. While the residents of this ranch were trying to pick up the pieces and clear the rubble, field reporters were fighting over piles of debris to stand on for their live shots. Something about that didn't feel right. I know that showing the damage from these storms is important, and people want to see it. But to what extent? Something about it felt wrong. All of these people were there, just watching the residents put their lives back together and waiting until the next live shot. Should these reporters have helped in the clean up? Brought water or supplies? I understand that journalists have to stay objective and not inset themselves into the news, but is there something they can do? Just watching these people try to clean up, using them for a news segment, then picking up and leaving feels...icky (I believe that's the technical term). But I don't know what the right answer is. Maybe there isn't one, but here's what I saw:

Pile of debris, and behind it, a young man who was trying to clean up

Reporter standing on a pile of debris, taping his segment 

At the Sheriff's news conference in the HEB parking lot

News conference in the HEB parking lot

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Ethics of Drone Journalism

Hallie Workman

This is a portion of a paper I recently completed. Granted, it's still a somewhat rough draft. With the FAA Modernization Act of 2012, private citizens and organizations will be allowed to fly unmanned aircrafts (with some restrictions). So what does this mean for journalists, and how can we use this new technology in an ethical manner?

   Drones have the potential to vastly enhance the journalism profession. In some places, it already has. In Moscow, a drone captured breathtaking areal footage of a 25,000-person protest. Drones were also used to survey damage in Tuscaloosa after the tornados. But this is just the beginning.
     I think it is clear that journalists need a few ethical guidelines and industry standards regarding drone use. While current codes of ethics lay out a basic foundation for respecting privacy, there are several issues concerning drone use that must be addressed explicitly. I propose that a drone journalism code of ethics be developed to be used in addition to, or alongside established codes of ethics like SPJ’s. Drone journalists have the same journalistic responsibilities as any other photographer or reporter, but also added responsibilities unique to drone use.
     Matthew Schroyer, of PSDJ is currently in the process of developing – perhaps the first – drone journalism code of ethics, and has several ideas about what such a code should include.
     One important issue is safety. As Schroyer explains, “the force needed to keep camera gear, radios and batteries aloft is not insignificant. The rigs we are experimenting with could easily injure a person. If a quadcopter is hovering above someone’s head at 300 feet and suddenly loses power, the results could be disastrous.” Obviously, the responsible and safe use of drones must be addressed in a drone journalism code of ethics. “Am I capable of controlling [the aircraft]? Is it safe to operate under these conditions? Am I prepared to take action when something goes wrong?” (Schroyer). These are all questions that must be addressed in this new ethics code. But most importantly, “the ethics of safety will trump the value of the story every time,” (Schroyer).

      Another concern that, unfortunately, must be addressed in this code of ethics is that of sensationalism – using drone footage just because it’s new and exciting, and might add a few people to your viewing audience. Drone footage should not (and does not need to be) used if it adds nothing to the story. Just because the newsroom got a shiny new toy doesn’t mean that it should make an appearance in every new segment. Drone use, particularly by broadcasters, should be used sparingly and only when it actually adds something to the content of the story – a meaningful perspective that could not be achieved through traditional methods. Schroyer expressed this concern regarding broadcast news: “Initial adoption might mean simple television newscasts that could be accomplished outdoors with a tripod are suddenly now ‘dronecasts’ … it might be visually impressive, but it lacks any sort of substance, and smacks of sensationalism”. In short, one guideline in the drone journalist code of ethics should state that drones should not be used only for the sake of using them, but should be used only when it will truly add to the story being told.
    As for the issue of privacy, current journalism codes of ethics do a fairly good job of outlining what constitutes an invasion of privacy and when, if ever, it is acceptable to cross that line. The current SPJ guidelines extend to drone journalism when they state that these methods should only be used when there is no other way to gather the information, and that questions of privacy must be weighed against public benefit. However, “because the risk of intrusion of privacy is greater with this technology…, a drone journalist must ‘amp-up’ his or her ethical considerations,” (Schroyer).

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The all-American boy v. the stereotypical thug

Hallie Workman

As we're well into the third week of the Trayvon Martin media storm, it's becoming more and more clear that not all the facts are in. And while the facts come in, the media is quick to characterize and fit Trayvon into a neat, digestible categories.

When the Trayvon Martin case first hit the news, outrage was the first reaction. Trayvon was portrayed by the media as an All-American boy. They weaved images of an innocent boy walking down the street with a bag of Skittles, going to watch a basketball game. Even the picture of Trayvon used by the media added to this image:

In the first round of media coverage, the image of Trayvon was an innocent, all-American boy who could do no wrong. But soon, another image began to take over:

In contrast, as the coverage continued, information came out which involved Trayvon using marijuana and disciplinary issues at school. Suddenly, some talking heads and media pundits decided that Trayvon was a thug and not at all innocent -- he was bad. On last week's On The Media, Trymaine Lee, a reporter for The Huffington Post said:
I think the difficulty is for some people to digest that these folks are whole people. Trayvon Martin was this smiling fresh-faced kid, but you throw, you know, some gold caps on his teeth and throw in, you know, possible marijuana usage, for some people they’re unnerved. And I think some people felt maybe duped, like we thought he was really one of us but now he’s something else. And that something else is, for some, maybe a thug.
Why does the media feel the need to fit Trayvon into one of two neat and tidy categories -- All-American boy or thug? Yes, it makes for a simpler narrative, but that's not the role of media. Journalists are ethically required to present the truth. The truth isn't neat. The truth isn't tidy. People don't fit into just one of two simple, opposing categories. The media has done a disservice by creating this dichotomy.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

NYT and the ethical meat challenge: let's keep this simple

Preface: If you're reading this and you're not part of the media ethics class I'm writing this for, you might be a little lost. I apologize in advance.

The challenge posed by the New York Times was simple: tell us why it's ethical to eat meat. The discussion in class (I'm a little late to the party writing this blog post) I feel got a little off topic. The question is about eating meat. The simple fact of consuming an animal. The question isn't "is the way we get out meat ethical?". It's not "Are factory farms ethical?". Do I like thinking about those nasty factory farms? Not particularly. But the simple fact of eating meat? Absolutely it's ethical.

As a matter of fact, I think it's unethical to say "it's just plain wrong to eat meat." I strongly disagree with the fact that eating meat is unethical in any situation. If it is unethical to eat meat, would it be ethical to let a cow die of old age then leave it to rot in a field while people around the globe struggle with hunger?

When we decide we want to explore a topic further, we tend to challenge ourselves by moving out; when asked if eating meat is ethical, we say, "let's challenge ourselves and explore this further," eventually ending up discussing the ethics of factory farms. However, moving inward and challenging the most basic assumptions of the issue is another, yet seldom utilized, way to further explore an issue. The point of this tangent is that this "moving inward" and exploring these issue at its most basic is the mindset I've been in while thinking about this ethical issue.

It is absolutely ethical to consume meat. Now, the ethics surrounding mass-producing cattle in disgusting conditions is a completely different issue both practically and ethically speaking.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

This American Life and the hour long retraction

Hallie Workman

The radio show This American Life is my all-time favorite. It's the reason I started listening to public radio constantly, and it was the first podcast I ever downloaded. In January, they had an episode called "Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory." Today, they ran an hour-long episode retracting things from that original story.

"Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory" was the most downloaded episode of This American Life ever. The entire episode was a radio adaptation of Mike Daisey's one man theatrical show called The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs." In this show, Daisey details his trip to China, his visit to the FoxCon factory, and the workers he spoke with while he was there. It was truly an amazing episode and an eye-opening story. Unfortunately, it was a story that was not completely true.

While I was listening to that original episode in January, I remember thinking it strange that Ira Glass (the host and the executive producer) spent the last 15 minutes or so going over which facts from Daisey's story they were able to verify, and which they weren't. They were unable to get in touch with Daisey's translator in China to confirm all of his story. I suppose this initially made Glass and the other producers a little nervous. Glass confessed this week that they should have killed the story at that point -- as soon as they couldn't get in touch with the translator to corroborate.

But they didn't kill the story. And it spread like wildfire, becoming extremely popular. The fact that it was so popular made dealing with this retraction all the harder. I was extremely impressed with how well TAL handled all of this. The synopsis of the first "act" of this week's show reads:
Host Ira Glass tells listeners we can no longer stand behind the reporting in the recently aired episode "Mr. Daisey Goes to the Apple Factory." He explains how Marketplace reporter Rob Schmitz tracked down Daisey's interpreter in China — a woman named Cathy Lee — who disputes much of Daisey's story. And Ira talks about how Mike Daisey lied to TAL during the fact-checking process, telling Ira and our producers that Cathy was not her real name and that she was unreachable. Ira also stresses that, without Cathy's corroboration of the story, This American Life never should have run the story in the first place. (5 minutes). 
I think that Glass and the producers did nearly everything they could in the initial stages of the January episode to fact-check, corroborate, and make sure that they were adhering to journalistic standards. They seem to have followed SPJ's code of ethics, as well as their own and those of Public Radio International. Should they have killed the story when they couldn't get in touch with the translator? Maybe. But they didn't. So they paid for their mistake and have done everything possible to fix it. In this week's show, they spent the hour not only saying what went wrong and what mistakes led to this error, but talking to Daisey and getting the whole story about why he lied to the producers who were fact checking:
Host Ira Glass has a lot of questions for Mike Daisey, beginning with why Daisey lied to Ira and This American Life producer Brian Reed about how they could fact-check his story with Cathy Lee. Ira also explains This American Life's fact-checking process, in general. (15 minutes). 
In addition to all of that, the third and last "act" of the show was spent essentially setting the record straight and detailing what they knew was true, and producing a truly journalistic story with hard, verified facts. The synopsis of this act reads:
To get a sense of what really is true of Apple's working conditions in China, Ira talks to New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg. Duhigg, along with Times reporter David Barboza, wrote the newspaper's front-page investigative series in early 2012 about this subject. And while Duhigg won't tell you how to feel about Apple and its supplier factories' practices, he does lay out the options for how you could feel, in a very clear and logical way. Duhigg is also the author of The Power of Habit.(12 minutes)." 
I haven't lost any faith in this show, or their journalistic integrity because of how well this was handled. Rather than just writing a statement explaining the situation and correcting what was false, they truly took responsibility for what happened. I think they stuck to journalism ethics and the show's own values well.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Homeless Hotspots and what changed my mind

"Homeless Hotspots" were easily the most talked about thing this year at SXSW. In short, the marketing firm BBH gave t-shirts to homeless people in Austin, and let them sell wireless internet access. The first I heard of this was from a tweet by AdAge. My immediate response was a tweet saying:
Horribly unethical. Further dehumanizes homeless pop: BBH Turns Homeless People Into Wi-Fi Hotspots at   
But now, I think that I spoke too soon. Yes, this rubbed me the wrong way at first. But the mistake I made was not taking the time to hear from someone directly affected. I assumed I knew how those homeless people would feel, when I had no right to make such assumptions.

My mind was changed when I heard a Marketplace report during which the host interviewed one of the homeless gentlemen turned into a "hot spot." Here's an excerpt of the conversation between Kai Ryssdal (the host of Marketplace), and Dusty White (one of the homeless men who participated in the program):

 White: I thought it was an excellent program. It gave me a little bit of recognition and not only that, it was a positive attitude interacting with people.
Ryssdal: So did the mainstream media get it wrong yesterday with 'Oh my god, this is horrible, look what they're doing?' Did we blow that?
White: Yes sir. I feel like that that was... yes sir. I do. All the persons that participate in this program here at the Front Steps program.
Ryssdal: Yeah. Front Steps is the shelter. Right?
White: That's correct. Yes sir. Every one of 'em enjoyed it and they're still talking about it and they would do it again.
I jumped to conclusions, got on my pedestal, and started saying how wrong and unethical this was. But I think I was wrong. Maybe BBH did this the right way. It certainly seems like they may have helped some of these people, not hurt them.

What media literacy? Kony 2012 and Millennials

It's not enough to say that the Kony 2012 video has gone viral. The attention it had received is on a scale that hasn't been seen before. Yesterday, the radio program To The Point devoted most of their show to discussing the Kony issue. The synopsis of that segment reads:

Kony 2012 went online just a week ago, and it's already chalked up 76 million views on You Tube, raising more than $10 million. Produced by a group called Invisible Children, it claims that widespread "awareness" can stop brutal Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony and his "Lord's Resistance Army" from kidnapping tens of thousands of children and turning them into soldiers, to murder their parents and other civilians and create havoc with no political purpose. Millions of young viewers are now focused on Central Africa, but some experts call it the wrong message at the wrong time. Why is Kony 2012 so appealing?  How did it get so big so fast?  Why do critics call "awareness campaigns" a form of "slacktivism?"

There have been several discussions (including during On The Point) about the fact errors and problems in the Kony video. One of the most common points raised is that people aren't doing their research into Invisible Children. Another valid point is that simply raising awareness may not have much of an effect beyond making you feel like you've done something good and that you're a part of something bigger than yourself.

Many of the Millennials who have taken up the Kony cause haven't done their research (I doubt many of them can even point to Uganda on a map). Many experts are speculating that raising awareness of Kony being in Uganda (when most agree that's not where he is anymore) could actually hinder international efforts to capture him.

Beyond that, what bothers me is the air of "white people to the rescue" around this whole thing. Why wasn't this much effort put into a campaign in the African countries afflicted? And where are the voices from Uganda, The Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, and South Sudan? According to Al Jazeera, at a recent screening in Uganda, the Kony video was met with outrage.

Is taking up a cause unethical if you didn't do your research? I think it certainly could be. Supporters might have the best intentions, but end up doing more harm than good. And many are simply participating in slacktivism, which I certainly think is unethical. They're not only fooling others into thinking they're doing something to make a difference and fighting for a cause, but many times, they're fooling themselves. Taking up a cause because it's trendy isn't okay. Without doing the research, you're just falling for propaganda.