Bustamonte records

29 Oct


We will spend some time in class Tuesday talking about the media ethics issues raised by the University of Idaho’s release of documents related to the Ernesto Bustamonte case.

Bustamonte was the fired UI professor who killed his one-time student, Katy Benoit, at the beginning of fall semester.

The thousands of documents answer some questions, raise others. How the information is sorted and used raises ethical, if not legal, questions.

How much detail on the romantic relationship between Benoit and Bustamonte is appropriate to report? How much detail on Benoit’s own mental illness and alleged drug use should be reported? Does Benoit have, in death, any ethical right to privacy even as the university, under court mandate, has released substantial private information?

The Benoit family, understandably upset by some of the detail, argues the university has failed to release all materials in its possession and is withholding important information. Their assertion has been reported. But to what extent should they be pressed to offer evidence of their claim?

For our PR students, the Bustamonte case ultimately will be a case study in crisis management. How well has the university managed its crisis communications? What else could be done, should be done?

These are just some of the questions worth considering.

Feel free to post ideas here. And we will take up the conversation later.



The West case

25 Oct

Good evening,

Our JAMM 341 students finished a two-class review of the Jim West/Spokesman-Review case.

This thread is for students to continue the classroom discussion on the following issues:

Was the newspaper justified in approving the deception that proved Jim West was online seeking sexual encounters with young men?

Was Jim West — is any elected official — entitled to privacy in their personal, non-work related life?

Absent any story on allegations of past child sexual abuse or contemporary online activity, was Jim West’s alleged political hypocrisy — closeted gay man sponsoring anti-gay legislation — a story by itself?

Please feel free to post responses to these or any other questions related to the case.


“Doonesbury” and The Chicago Tribune

13 Sep


One of our “current events” today was The Chicago Tribune’s decision to drop from the paper this week “Doonesbury” strips based on the upcoming Joe McGinniss book on Sarah Palin.

This story from The Washington Post explains the genesis of the strips. And here is the link to the official “Doonesbury” site where you can view the strips in question.

As reported on Romenesko (link here), Tribune editors defended their decision to drop the story arc because the facts being “reported in “Doonesbury” could not be independently verified and because Palin could not defend herself from assertions in a book not yet available to the public.

Now I agree with those who find this defense a bit odd. “Doonesbury” is a comic strip and artist/author Garry Trudeau has never described himself as a journalist. If we are going to apply journalistic standards of verification and fairness to cartoonists, especially cartoonists of the editorial variety, we’re going to be taking on an unachievable challenge.

Still Tribune editors can choose to apply standards of accuracy and fairness wherever they choose. They have cast this issue in ethical terms and students in our class have begun to see, by now I hope, that an ethical decisions is defined as much by process as by outcome.

Harder to get across this morning was the realization that The Tribune is not censoring Trudeau. This isn’t a First Amendment issue. The First Amendment deals with government action, not a business/ethics decision on the part of citizen editors. Trudeau’s rights are not being violated.

Perhaps a few of my students are willing to expand on this point.

In my years as an editor, I pulled a comic strip once. Yes, it was “Doonesbury,” a series run during the first Gulf War that seemed to me to be anti-military in a particularly offensive way. I was managing editor of The Wichita Eagle and Wichita was a military town and pulling the strip made sense in the moment. But Ii soon came to regret that decision. It seemed more cowardly than principled, sparing me the wrath of some readers who would have been offended but depriving others of a valid editorial point of view. I made it a rule after that to let controversial strips run and take the consequences.

Unless I have missed something that is what is most editors are doing this week with the exception of  those running The Chicago Tribune.



Opening case studies

31 Aug


We opened the semester’s work with nine sample case studies – some drawn from real-life, a couple hypothetical – illustrating typical problems in nine different categories that we will study during the term.

We broke into nine small groups to address each case and resolve the questions. But class time permitted full discussion of only four.

Those interested in the other five can use this thread to discuss your resolution.

If you post, please first summarize in a few sentences the case you are addressing. (the file is too big to reproduce here but each of you should have an electronic copy).

We start the semester with these cases before we have really begun to talk about the ethical decision making process and the available framework for ethical decisions. Your first-blush answers may reflect strong personal values rather than the value sets of our professions. That’s just fine. We’ll revisit the cases at the end of the semester to see if your answers will have changed.



Tim Cook’s sexuality

31 Aug

Good morning,

In class yesterday, we discussed the debate over whether or not to note  Tim Cook’s sexuality in news stories about Apple’s new CEO. Within media circles there is no consensus. Some argue that noting Cook is gay helps counter harmful stereotypes, attacks whatever stigma remains for gay men in the business world and provides news consumers with a complete portrait of one of the world’s most important executives.

Here is Reuters blogger Felix Salmon’s take on the issue.

Others argue Cook’s sexuality has no bearing on his performance as Apple CEO, that Cook himself has been reluctant to talk about his sexuality and that continuing to focus on sexual identification issues, in fact,  perpetuates stereotypes.

In developing a media ethics case study out of the Cook controversy, we have to begin by identifying the central question. There are any number of ways to frame the question and context does matter. Noting Cook’s sexuality in a profile presents the issue in a somewhat different light than arguing it is relevant in a news story about Apple earnings.

For purposes of the classroom blog, this is our central question: Should journalists report Tim Cook’s sexuality in stories about his leadership of Apple? Note the question encompasses all sorts of stories, from news briefs to feature profiles. So response to the question has to address context.

In class, we would boil this question down to a conflict of values.

As a journalist I might believe and argue that individuals, even powerful executives, are entitled to some privacy in their personal lives. But I also might believe (and hold the value) that news consumers deserve to know all the relevant facts of a story, that I am obligated to tell people what I know when I know it.

How we resolve this values conflict leads us to an answer to the question that is ethically defensible.

So, JAMM 341 students, weigh in. Consider how you might answer the question as an individual based on your personal values and beliefs vs. how you might answer as a journalist, obligated to accept the values of the profession. Do you come to a different answer?



The body shot

24 Aug

Good afternoon,

Classes began here at the University of Idaho on Monday and the campus community was immediately dealing with one of those uminaginable tragedies that happens somewhere else.

Monday night, a former UI psychology professor shot and killed a graduate student. The professor, Ernesto Bustamonte, killed Katy Benoit in the backyard of her apartment just off campus. Tuesday morning, Bustamonte was found dead, the result of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, in a nearby motel room.

Good reporting by hard-digging journalists will produce the incident details demanded by students, faculty and staff. The university, typically cautious and likely following the advice of its legal staff, is saying almost nothing about the dead student and very little about her killer even though Bustamonte apparently was fired or forced to resign because of a student complaint.

Until more details are uncovered, the campus will continue to simmer with speculation, rumor and misinformation.  There is a transparency argument to be made here, but that is not the purpose of  this post.

Instead, I would like my ethics students to weigh in on a photo decision made by editors of  The Argonaut, the university’s student newspaper. The Argonaut staff did an excellent job covering the unfolding events Tuesday morning, making good use of social media and the paper’s website to keep the university community informed.

Argonaut photographer (and ethics class survivor) Nick Groff was apparently the only photographer to get a shot of authorities wheeling away the body of Bustamonte, encased in a black body bag. Argonaut editors debated using the photo for a few minutes before deciding to post it on the paper’s website. Here is a link to the report and photo.

In explaining the decision to my freshman media survey course this morning, Argonaut Managing Editor Elisa Eiguren (another ethics class survivor) said editors debated whether or not the photo was offensive, whether or not it would generate criticism, whether or not it violated the privacy of either the victim or the shooter. In the end, she said, editors decided the photo got to the essence of the story, portraying events in a way that words alone could not.

Groff told me the paper has taken considerable heat from people who said the photo is too sensational, is offensive or intrusive. But others have said they think the photo tells an important aspect of the story.

To my ethics students: What do you think? Should The Argonaut have posted the photo? Given the circumstances facing Argonaut journalists Tuesday morning, what is the right thing to do?




15 Aug


The standard media ethics curriculum covers the usual subjects — deception, privacy, offensive content, stereotyping, etc. In my class we have units devoted to all of those issues. And the available media ethics texts (and there are a number, mostly good, some outstanding) deal exhaustively with those same topics.

But the texts, in general,  have yet to catch up with a fundamental ethical value of the digital age — transparency.

Media practitioners, regardless of discipline, must understand that information consumers (including news consumers) not only value transparency from their media organizations, they demand it. Understanding how and why decisions are made helps a consumer judge the credibility of the information and the credibility of the source delivering it. Transparency is directly linked to credibility.

Of course, there is a practical benefit, too. Getting out in front of a problem (or, better yet,  a positive development) allows the organization to shape the conversation. There are benefits to that.

Absent transparency, rumor, gossip and conspiracy theories take root and become the reality.

So I teach transparency as a fundamental ethical value.

Our industries were engaged in a relatively robust — and healthy — debate about transparency some years ago. But as economic pressures have increased, the fight for business and economic survival has left little room for the transparency discussion. And that is not a good thing.

steve smith