Open thread on summer ethics cases

5 Jul


In the media world, ethics issues arise daily. There is no summer vacation.

Here are just a few interesting cases (with links) that have developed only since the end of my summer session class on June 11.

Use this thread to comment on these cases or any others that have caught your attention.

What is your take on the issue? How should it be addressed or how should it have been resolved? In each of these cases, what is the right thing to do?

1. The sad case of New York Rep. Anthony Weiner raised several issues. In terms of “right to privacy issues,” we might ask if it was ever appropriate to name the women with whom Weiner corresponded before they chose to out themselves. But the last significant issue involved Weiner’s wife, Huma Abedin. When, if ever, was it appropriate to report that Abedin is pregnant with the couple;s first child? This Huffington Post link asks that question.

2.  One of the biggest media stories so far this summer involves former Washington Post reporter Joe Antonio Vargas revealing in this New York Times piece that he is an undocumented alien, that he has kept that secret while working for a variety of news organizations and that his Washington Post mentor knew about his illegal status and kept the secret from Post editors and executives.

How many ethical issues does this story raise? More than we can discuss in this space. Vargas initially argued that he never wrote about immigration issues while working for The San Francisco Chronicle or The Post. That turned out to be untrue. He wrote a number of pieces on immigration. Was that a conflict of interest?

When he joined The Post, Vargas was assigned to Peter Perl, a senior editor who was to be his mentor and friend. Even after he moved to human resources, Perl kept Vargas’s secret. This Poynter piece by Kelly McBride covers that issue. As a former senior editor, I know I would have had a fiduciary responsibility to my company to report Vargas (assuming he would have been able to get through the hiring process in the first place). Perl has not been disciplined by The Post. Is that the right call?

3.  Nationally, the fight for gay/lesbian/transgendered marriage equality is well underway and that is a major continuing story this summer. But in the media world, there still pop up fights over issues we might have thought were settled long ago.  Earlier this summer, a community newspaper in Arkansas edited the obituary of a gay man to remove all mention of his long-time partner. The paper’s defense, as noted in this report, wasn’t stated very well.  To what extent are newspaper publishers obligated to “reflect the life of their communities in all of their wholeness and complexity?’ And remember, as we discussed in class, this is not a First Amendment issue.

4. Earlier this summer, in a small new Hampshire town, a man beset by legal and family problems, set himself on fire in a very public suicide. Within hours, the local community newspaper received in the mail and then published, the man’s lengthy suicide “manifesto.” This Poynter report details the challenges editors faced in dealing with the man’s letter. As we have discussed in class, one of the reasons news organizations tread carefully when reporting suicides is the possibility news reports can trigger copycats.  Could publication of this man’s lengthy complaint against society and the legal system trigger others who want attention called to their causes? Was printing the “manifesto” the right thing to do?

5. NPR reporter Dina Temple-Raston was the featured speaker, and a paid speaker at that,  at a Connecticut “women of distinction” luncheon. So far so good. But Temple-Raston told a reporter in advance of the event that she would not allow her speech to be videotaped, at least according to this report in the DarienPatch. What do you think of journalists who fight for access to news refusing to allow access to their own speeches?

6. There have been a couple of cases of plagiarism on the part of news professionals this summer. This Poynter report wonders if the penalties for plagiarism and fabrication have been relaxed in recent years. Is plagiarism still a capital offense? And for reference, Poynter offered up this useful roundup of recent (and not so recent) plagiarism cases.

7. Maybe my favorite case from the summer to date was Newsweek’s decision (Editor Tina Brown’s decision) to Photoshop the magazine’s cover photo for a story on Princess Diana’s 50th birthday. The now famous cover depicts an artificially aged Diana walking and chatting with Kate Middleton. Here, from, is Tina Brown’s defense of the cover. Also, Brown’s defense in The Washington Post. Of course, there were critics, too. Here is a strident protest from the British in a Telegraph blog post. In class, we make clear that Photoshopping news photos is a capital crime. But this is a photo illustration made to accompany a speculative story. Was it the right thing to do?

Please feel free to comment on these or any other media ethics issues that have developed so far this summer. I’ll join in the discussion where appropriate.



One Response to “Open thread on summer ethics cases”

  1. ivansolotov July 7, 2011 at 5:08 pm #

    The information about Weiner’s wife wasn’t newsworthy, but it was entertaining. Weiner is a public official and therefore fair game, but his wife has a greater right to privacy. This trend of “infotainment” is disturbing. It goes without saying that many organizations knew that she was pregnant, but chose to sit on it. The problem is that there will always be someone who doesn’t care enough about ethics to withhold it ( TMZ, SmokingGun etc.) What makes the issue worse is that these sites generate traffic and revenue. Therefore This is dangerous because it could start a trend of respected organizations lowering ethical standards to compete with infotainment, if only for monetary reasons.

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