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Muslim Rage?

18 Sep


We had a brief classroom discussion this morning on the “Muslim Rage” cover of Newsweek magazine this week. The cover strikes some critics as bordering on hate speech and/or as an effort to inflame anti-Muslim passions in the United States. Supporters will argue the cover is provocative, but an not-inaccurate depiction of recent events in the Middle East.

Of course, it is the latest in a string of controversial Newsweek covers laid at the foot of Newsweek/Daily Beast chief Tina Brown who is struggling to make the magazine relevant again.

What do you think? Is there an ethical dimension to the publish/don’t publish question confronting Newsweek editors? How would you frame that question and what values are in conflict? Would you publish?



Mideast crisis raises ethical questions for the media

13 Sep


In both my freshman survey class and upper division ethics class, we have focused for two days on the numerous ethical issues raised by the present crisis in the Middle East, a crisis brought about — at least in part — by the wide distribution of an offensive anti-Muslim video.

There is an ethical dimension to ways journalists deal with the video and related questions of free expression in a free society.

There also are ethical questions related to how journalists have responded to the violence in the Middle East, particularly the killing of U.S. ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, Tuesday night.

I’ll start with the video.

The trailer to the film, “The Innocence of Muslims,” was first posted on You Tube in July. It gained wider release — and translation into Arabic — when it was promoted in recent days by anti-Muslim fringe minister Terry Jones and other anti-Muslim radicals operating in the United States. That is when it went viral in the Middle East. The film is inarguably offensive, appallingly offensive, designed to denigrate and provoke, mocking Islam’s prophet in a way its producers must have known would spark violence and murder. No reasonably intelligent American could look at this bit of vile, racist propaganda without cringing.

But in our system, expression of even the most vile opinion is protected. Absent a clear and present danger to the security of the nation or clear incitement to violence and murder, First Amendment protections make it impossible for authorities to step in an stop production or disttribution of the hateful video. It is not inappropriate to ask the question, in that context: Does the First Amendment go too far in protecting vile hate speech? The courts have weighed in — see last year’s Supreme Court decision on the Westboro Baptist Church lunatics. But the question bears discussion.

Only in debating the merits of the First Amendment – discussing what it does and doesn’t do, what it ought to do – can we ultimately gain an appreciation for the founders’ foresight. As a First Amendment absolutist, I believe in the free marketplace of ideas and protection of free expression. But I can understand the discomfort of some when protections are pushed to the brink.

What do you think. Should First Amendment protections extend to hate speech? If you supports limits, where would you draw the line? Who would decide?

News coverage of the Libya murders presents journalists with a more familiar dilemma. Photos of Ambassador Stevens’ body were available. The Los Angeles Times and New York Daily News, among others, ran the gruesome photos on their front pages. The New York Times ran a body shot on its website yesterday, but editors apparently believed the photos too graphic for print today. Here is a Poynter piece detailing the photo issue?

We have not spent much time in class just yet discussing offensive content. But we do know there has to be some sort of calculation in deciding whether or not to run the body photos. Are there outcomes so significant that they outweigh the inevitable offense such photos generate?

What do you think?

Challenge yourself to see all sides of the debate. Would your position be different if you were deciding for a paper in Stevens’ home town? Do you worry about the impact on his family and friends? Does that outweigh your responsibility to provide a full and complete report to c itizens? Why?



Ethics of 9/11 anniversaries

11 Sep


As we discussed in class, there is some controversy within professional journalism circles about the extent to which the 9/11 terrorist attacks of 2001 should be commemorated/relived on the anniversary.

There is enormous pressure on media organizations to commemorate key anniversaries such as Pearl Harbor or D-Day and now 9/11. As an editor, I would take a dozen or more calls in any year when a Pearl Harbor remembrance story failed to make our Page 1 on Dec. 7 or a D-Day commemoration on June 6. Woe unto the editor who forgets a Page 1 presence on Veterans Day or memorial Day. Although I am off-line now, I suspect much the same pressure comes from readers and viewers on 9/11. Yet The New York Times and New York Post chose not to commemorate the event on their front pages today (although there was coverage inside). Is there an ethical component to the anniversary question? At what point is it ethically responsible for journalists to turn over a watershed event to historians and move on?

Meanwhile, MSNBC today once again replayed the as-it-happened recording of the Today Show as it was  broadcast live the morning of the attacks 11 years ago. The replay presents the events as they unfolded live on television and includes images of the second plane hitting the World Trade Center south tower and images of both towers as they collapsed. The Today anchors reference falling bodies although the live coverage at the time did not show falling people.

Critics argue this 1oth repeat of the 9/11 telecast is a gratuitous reliving of events that can re-traumatize people, especially children.

What are the ethical issues involved in MSNBC’s decision to replay the Today Show?

How would you defend The New York Times decision to take 9/11 off the front page? How would you defend MSNBC’s decision to rebroadcast the Today Show? How would you defend the opposite decisions?

Comment below.

Steve Smith

The New York Shooting photos

28 Aug


Today in class we looked at photos published, respectively, by the New York Daily News and The New York Times following last week’s shooting outside the Empire State Building.

We had a good discussion on the use of the photos and this thread allows for a continuation of that debate. Were the photos appropriate for print or web publication?

What do you think?


The New York Times photo of shooting victim

The New York Daily News photo of the dead shooter

OU Daily update

24 Aug


Two excellent pieces from Poynter today following up the OU Daily autopsy report controversy.

First is this more detailed account of how student editors dealt with the report and the ensuing controversy. The new details have altered my thinking a bit.

Second, is this fine analysis from Poynter ethicist Kelly McBride on the best ways to handle autopsy reports and why careful handling by journalists is so important. McBride is going to be our keynote speaker for the annual Oppenheimer Ethics Symposium in Boise on Oct. 19.

Feel free to weigh in. And we’ll continue our class discussion at our next meeting on Tuesday.


The Oklahoma Daily autopsy case

23 Aug


In class today we discussed the in-the-headlines case of The Oklahoma Daily at the University of Oklahoma, where editors  embedded a link to an autopsy report in a story following up on the June death of an OU student who fell from a fire escape. Here is a link to Poynter’s take on the case.

In writing about the report — which confirmed the young female student was drunk at the time of her fall — Daily editors included a link to the medical examiner’s autopsy report. The paper did not actually publish the report, but simply provided a link to what is a public record.

Reader outrage followed and apparently prompted editors to quickly remove the link and apologize for their “insensitivity” to family and friends of the victim and the university community.

We spent a fair amount of time on the case in class but left the issues unresolved. Were Daily editors ethically correct to embed the link in the first place? If the overriding professional value at play in this case is the public’s right to know, one can make the argument the link was ethically acceptable. But if the overriding professional value at play is protecting the privacy of victim and family — or protecting the sensibilities of the university community — one can make the argument the link was not justified and the apology was appropriate.

Would the calculation be different if the newspaper in the case were a metropolitan daily serving a general audience as opposed to a paper serving

I think this case could resonate with UI students. We have had similar death-by-falling incidents on campus in recent years. Even last year’s murder of a student at the hands of a deranged ex-faculty member could raise the same issues re: an autopsy report.

This post presents an opportunity for students — and anyone else — to continue the discussion.

What do you think? What was the right thing to do?



23 Aug


Welcome to JAMM 341, Mass Media Ethics.

We will use this blog to carry on in-class discussions of current events in media ethics. I will start threads on a regular basis and students are encouraged to jump in with comments of their own. In addition, ferel free to post current events that you discover.

As we start the semester, please take a few minutes and introduce yourself on the blog. Tell us who you are, where you are from and your media interests. Don’t be shy. It is a big class so it can be hard to get to know one another in the classroom. But learning about your fellow students is a good thing.

So post away.


steve smith