Media Ethics

This blog post is part of an assignment for my Mass Communication class at LWIT, and focuses on three podcasts from On the Media. The first podcast, titled “Sue You”, is about a defamation lawsuit against a blogger. The second, titled “You Decide, We Report”, discusses how Search Engine Optimization has affected online reporting. The third, titled “People in Holes” reports the history and public appeal of stories about people trapped in holes (e.g. miners trapped in a mine or a child fallen down a well). At first these three podcasts may seem not to have much in common, but in light of our current topic in class, I can see how they all relate to media ethics.

Part I: Anonymity, Defamation, and the Internet

Sue You” talks about anonymous free speech on the internet versus holding people accountable for it, looking specifically at the case of Liskula Cohen and Rosemary Port. It started when an anonymous blogger called Cohen “the number one skanky superstar”. Cohen wanted to sue for defamation, so a New York ordered Google’s blogger service to reveal the blogger’s name. The blogger, Rosemary Port, an acquaintance of Cohen’s, now says she’ll sue Google for failing to protect her identity (a suit that’s not likely to go anywhere; Google was following a court order after all). Courts all over the country are having to deal with cases like this, deciding when to uphold the anonymity and free speech of people on the internet and when defamation requires forcing someone to have their identity disclosed.

Although the New York court decided that “skank” was a definable term and capable of defamatory meaning, Ms. Cohen decided to dismiss her claim after she learned the blogger’s identity. Matt Zimmerman, a lawyer for the Electric Frontier Foundation and the interviewee on the podcast, says, “If average users on the Internet think that they can use the court system to just figure out who is being mean to them, I think you really open the door for abusing the court system. ”

How does this relate to media ethics? Usually we think of “the media” as referring to large news corporations, but really anyone publishing their work online (including me writing on this blog) is part of the media, and we need to consider the ethics of what we post. My advice? Don’t use your online anonymity to be mean to people. Don’t say anything about people online that you wouldn’t say to their face.

Part II: Pandering

Search Engine Optimization is causing reporters to ditch witty, punchy headlines in favor of straightforward, Google-searchable ones. That’s one issue brought up in “You Decide, We Report“, but the main issue discussed in this podcast is the question of pandering. Using Google Trends, the editors of news sites are able to see what people are searching for and then cover some of those stories. “But isn’t that just an invitation to pander to the most populistic tastes?” the interviewer asks. This leads to an argument about the role of news reporting. Is it the job of a journalist to determine what is important and report on those things, or to determine what the audience thinks is important and report on those things? It’s such a subtle difference and a difficult balancing act. Interviewee Brent Payne, director of Search Engine Optimization for Tribune Interactive, says, “…who are we to say what is or isn’t important? Gmail being down was a huge thing a few days ago. Is that important to the human race? Well, I think that you could argue both ways.”

People in Holes” doesn’t mention pandering, but it’s easy to see how it fits in. I can still remember how much coverage there was of the Chilean mining accident in 2010 (the podcast doesn’t mention that event; it was apparently recorded before then). People love hearing these dramatic stories: they combine primal fears of being trapped in the dark with a sense of hope that it will turn out all right in the end (although not all such incidents end happily). But is it right for news sources to devote so much coverage to these stories when there is so much else going on in the world? It’s quite the quandary, especially since there’s a lot of money in stories like this. In 1987, CNN covered the story of Jessica McClure, an 18-month-old baby girl who fell into a well. Bob Fernad, CNN’s vice president and senior producer at that time, said, “Our ratings shot up as people left the three broadcast networks, assuming, correctly so, that they’d do the story and then go back to their regular programming and that we’d stay with it. And our ratings spiked, and for the first time we beat the three broadcast networks in eyeballs.”

So where is the line between pandering and important news? I don’t have an answer to that, but I hope I have caused you to think about ethics—not just about what other people should do, but about what you should do.

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