Birds of a Feather…

It’s the end of Fall Quarter, but I have one final post for my Mass Communication class. This one is on the topic of Homophily, the human tendency to prefer people who are like you—people who share your interests, your religion, your ethnicity, and your economic status. It’s a single word that expresses the old saying “birds of a feather flock together.”

The interesting thing about the internet is that while it provides so much possibility for connection with people who are different from you, most internet users still cloister themselves in zones of like-minded individuals on the internet. I’ve found this is true in my life, for the most part. If I look at what I typically read on the internet, it breaks down into a few tight categories: design blogs, webcomics (mostly in the science fiction, fantasy, and superhero genres), Christian blogs/magazines, YouTube videos (mostly from channels I subscribe to) and random stuff that my friends post on Facebook. You might think that the things people post on Facebook might expose you and I to different opinions and interest than our own. There’s two problems with this. First is that people tend to befriend those who are like them, so their Facebook news feeds aren’t really that diverse. Now I tend to think that I have a slightly more diverse selection of Facebook friends, but I still fall for the second problem, which is that I only click on and read the things that sound interesting to me. There’s a lot of stuff on my Facebook news feed that I just pass by.

So now that you’re aware of homophily, I’d encourage you to make a conscious effort from time to time to seek out people and ideas that are outside your normal zone. Take a risk; you may like what you find. Or you might not, but you’ll have expanded your mind in the process.

If you want to learn more about homophily, check out the following (one podcast and 3 articles):

http://www.onthemedia.org/story/132486-brooke-clive-and-ethan-at-aspen/

http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2008/04/25/homophily-serendipity-xenophilia/

http://www.nytimes.com/2006/12/10/magazine/10Section2a.t-4.html?_r=2&

http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2009/jan/31/oliver-burkeman-column-homophily

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Propaganda

Propaganda-poster

In Mass Communication class we talked about propaganda. Propaganda is typically divided into three categories: black, white, and gray.

White Propaganda intentionally suppresses potentially harmful information and ideas, and promotes positive information and ideas, to distract attention from problematic events. Also, the source of the message is known.

Black Propaganda is the deliberate and strategic propagation of lies, and often the source does not make itself known.

Gray Propaganda is the transmission of ideas or information that may or may not be false—no effort is made to determine their validity. The source may or may not be known.

I made the poster above after reading the recent news about the CIA’s past use of torture in interrogation. The poster I made would be an example of white propaganda, since it suppresses negative information (the CIA’s use of torture) and promotes a positive idea (that the CIA keeps you safe).

Media Ethics, Part II

This is the second blog post regarding media ethics for my Mass Communication class at LWIT. In this post I’ll be drawing from and discussing the following three resources:

  1. The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics (I’m not going to discuss this on it’s own, but I will make reference to it.)
  2. Weekday on KUOW: The Moral Dilemma of Advertising
  3. Project Censored

Illegal Advertisements: Who is Responsible?

I’ll start with “The Moral Dilemma of Advertising.” This podcast is an 45-minute-long segment from KUOW radio. In 2011, Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn pulled government ads from the Seattle Weekly and asked the newspaper and its parent company Village Voice Media to prevent ads for underage prostitution from appearing on backpage.com, another subsidiary of Village Voice. Prompting this action on the part of the mayor was the fact that in 2010, twenty-two Seattle-area children were recovered from prostitution who had been advertised through backpage.com. The mayor’s suggestion for how to fix this was to require people to show up in person at the Seattle Weekly office in order to place an ad on the website.

Mike Sealy, the editor-in-chief of the Seattle Weekly responded by saying that although ads in the printed version of the Seattle Weekly are pre-screened, those on the website are not. However, Village Voice Media does have a team of people who comb through the site and report suspicious ads to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Since Backpage is a large, nationwide operation, not just a local one, Mr. Sealy was skeptical that the mayor’s plan would become reality.

The mayor’s opinion was that we need to prevent harm, not just catch it after the fact. Mr. Sealy countered by saying that Backpage helps police catch criminals, and while on the one hand they don’t want to encourage criminal activity on the site, on the other hand restricting who can post ads on the site would merely make the criminals harder to find.

After concluding the interviews with Mike McGinn and Mike Sealy, the podcast introduces two new interviewees: Michele Earl Hubbard, a lawyer specializing in media law, and Jane Kirtley, professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Hubbard pointed out that there are no legal obligations for newspapers taking advertisements. That was why Mayor McGinn had to ask the newspaper to cooperate; he could command them to. Furthermore, in online media, the advertiser is considered the publisher of their ad, so the owner of the website bears no responsibility for the content of the advertisement. Professor Kirtley agreed with this and questioned whether the mayor was acting unethically by pulling government ads from the Seattle Weekly as a way to pressure them. Her opinion was that we shouldn’t let the government be the morality police. If we give the government control over the media, it stifles free speech. Ms. Hubbard’s conclusion was that the government should really be going after advertisers, not the publisher of the newspaper or website.

Personally, I’m opposed to all forms of sex trafficking, but I think I have to agree with Professor Kirtley here. Government regulation of media outlets is not the way to solve the problem. I do believe, however, that although media outlets have no legal obligations regarding the advertisements they allow or disallow, they do have an ethical one.

Unheard Stories

Every once in a while I’ll see someone post a news story on Facebook with the comment “Why wasn’t this reported in the mainstream media?” Generally, I like to give the mainstream media the benefit of the doubt. There’s a lot of news out there, so they can’t report on everything. But I also know they’re not perfect, and at times exhibit bias or fall prey to censorship. This is where Project Censored comes in. Project Censored is a website that collects news from independent sources, news that has been misrepresented or ignored in the mainstream media. I’m not going to discuss the individual news stories here—you can check them out yourself—but I will discuss the ethics of news reporting.

The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics says, “Journalists should be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.” There are several factors however that can prevent this from happening. Because the news stations are backed by large corporations, there may be conflicts of interest. That is, the corporations may censor news stories that reflect badly upon themselves, or recast them in a different light. That’s why the Code of Ethics says, “Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived,” and “Disclose unavoidable conflicts,” and “Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable.”

Another issue is the pressure of status quo. News stations report on hurricanes and tornadoes every year, but not on the increasing acidity of the ocean. Why is that?

Now I don’t have evidence that the journalists in the mainstream media are in fact violating the Code of Ethics. But it’s good to be aware. After all the Code of Ethics does say to “Expose unethical practices of journalists and the news media.”

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.