journalism ethics

Public argument is relatively new idea

Really enjoying the recently published “New Ethics of Journalism.” Below is a good bit from Clay Shirky on the nature of public argument and debate. Many cultures in Asia and the Arab world are struggling as the Internet forces governments to concede to these public arguments.

Argument, of course, is the human condition, but public argument is not. Indeed, in most places for most of history, publicly available statements have been either made or vetted by the ruling class, with the right of reply rendered impractical, illegal, or both. Expansion of public speech, for both participants and topics, is generally won only after considerable struggle, and of course, any such victory pollutes the sense of what constitutes truth from the previous era, a story that runs from Martin Luther through Ida Tarbell to Mario Savio, the drag queens outside Stonewall, and Julian Assange.

Important to remember the struggle takes time.

By | August 30th, 2013|Uncategorized|0 Comments

Journalism educators group blasts White House for aggressive prosecuting of press leaks

My professional group, the Association for Journalism and Mass Communication Education (AEJMC), just released a statement decrying the current administrations approach to prosecuting press leaks.

It’s an important statement because President Obama is taking an unprecedented tack with these historically common leaks. Our group — obviously concerned with protecting good journalism and public accountability — should not remain silent while this happens. Many are quite surprised that Obama — who promised to be transparent and more open in dealing with the press — appears to many to be no different that his predecessor.

For the average person, the value of leaking classified information is lost. However, most “big stories” that uncover government abuse and waste came to the press by way of an anonymous whistleblower who leaked the information. The statement opens:

The Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) is committed to freedom of speech and the press in the United States and abroad. AEJMC believes that this commitment must include a free exchange of information and ideas, even some information that the U.S. government considers or wishes to be “secret.” The Pentagon Papers, Watergate, the Iran-Contra affair and the existence of clandestine CIA prisons are examples in which secret government information was leaked to and publicized by the news media. In these and in many other cases, the dissemination of secret information served a greater good to American society by informing the public and by allowing for a needed debate on the ethics of secret government policies and covert actions. We believe that a democracy shrouded in secrecy encourages corruption, and we agree, as Justice Louis D. Brandeis of the U.S. Supreme Court said, “sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

The statement then goes on to outline the current approach:

AEJMC, therefore, calls attention to the current administration’s zeal in prosecuting those in government who leak secret information. Only three times in its first 92 years was the Espionage Act of 1917 used to prosecute government officials for leaking secret information to the press. However, the current administration has already brought six charges under this Act. The accused in all of these cases appear to represent whistleblowers, not those engaged in attempted espionage for foreign governments that “aid the enemy.”

Huge difference between giving information to an enemy spy and leaking it to the press — at least if you live in a democracy where press freedom is seen as an important check on the power of the government. But the current administration isn’t acknowledging that difference:

We caution that the prosecution of U.S. Army Pfc. Bradley Manning, who released a trove of secret data to the WikiLeaks website, appears to be excessively punitive, with a chilling effect on a democracy’s requisite freedom of speech and the press. The release of this information advanced and clarified public debate on the morality of U.S. policy. Some observers even suggest that the honest (albeit secret) diplomatic assessments of Middle Eastern regimes helped spark the Arab Spring. Pfc. Bradley Manning has already admitted in military court that he did break the law through his actions. But to accuse him of “aiding the enemy” is egregious, given his credible stated intentions and the global breadth of the dissemination.

The government’s current approach toward leak prosecutions sends a message to the rest of the world that the United States’ actions are not fully aligned with its stated “exceptional” commitment to freedom of speech and the press as a human right

Great point. We can’t just go around lecturing the world about the value of a free press and then prosecute an important part of its function here at home. The statement concludes with suggestion for future action

Therefore, in recognition of the historical benefits of leaked information to our nation and to the principles and values of democracy, in particular the freedom of speech and the press, AEJMC calls on the U.S. government to make prosecutions as rare as possible, to consider the credible intent of the accused in these prosecutions, and to seek punishment that is proportionate and commensurate, not only with credible intent, but also with resulting harm and benefit to our democracy, its principles and values. Furthermore, we ask that prosecutors consider reviewing existing press leak cases in light of the public good and the First Amendment. AEJMC believes that this will ensure an environment in which the public will continue to be served through the occasional leaking of secret information by those whose credible intent was the public good.

Note that the statement doesn’t call for the absolute prohibition of prosecution of press leaks — however, we certainly feel that they should far more rare than they are right now.

The president of AEJMC, the presidential advisory committee, and the Professional Freedom and Responsibility Chairs of each division (including myself, Media Ethics Division) helped draft the statement. I’m proud that we as a group are standing strongly for press freedom and that we live in a country where such speech is protected and valued.

By | April 3rd, 2013|Uncategorized|0 Comments

UAE press ignores coalition statement on activists’ trial

The Washington Post and other international news outlets just published this Associated Press article detailing the condemnation of the UAE’s trial against five activists here:

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — A coalition of international human rights organizations on Thursday accused the United Arab Emirates of violating international legal standards by prosecuting five jailed campaigners for political reforms in the oil-rich Gulf country.

The statement by the 7-member alliance marks the highest level international pressure over the trial. The charges could carry long prison terms.

The activists, including a prominent blogger and an economics professor who has lectured at the Abu Dhabi branch of Paris’ Sorbonne university, were charged with anti-state crimes after signing an Internet petition calling for constitutional changes and free elections.Political activity is severely restricted in the UAE, an alliance of seven semiautonomous states, each ruled by a sheik who inherits the post. There are no official opposition groups in the country, and political parties are banned.

The UAE has not had street protests like those that erupted this year across the Middle East, including in neighboring Bahrain. Authorities moved aggressively to keep demands for political change, inspired by the Arab Spring revolts, out of the Gulf federation that includes the glitzy city-state Dubai.

The five activists were arrested in April and charged with insulting the UAE’s rulers and endangering the country’s security. If convicted on all charges, they could face decades in prison.

A verdict is expected Nov. 27. The defendants have no right to appeal.

The decision of the English-language press to ignore this story shows the type of self-censorship prevalent in this country. While journalism in the UAE has certainly improved in the last few years, it still suffers from huge ethical lapses such as the avoidance of contextual reporting on this trial. The main newspapers have run articles after each court appearance, but they have devoted no space at all to the controversy surrounding the arrests. The press has ignored important aspects of the case such as this denouncement from human rights groups and a statement from one of the activists detailing alleged abuses in jail while awaiting the trial.

This abdication of journalistic duty is important to note. As I detailed in my recent research on media literacy in the UAE, what a press outlet chooses to cover has profound impact on the knowledge of media consumers. The people of the UAE deserve to know about the context surrounding this trial, and the press does them a terrible disservice by ignoring crucial elements of the story.

Of course, everyone in the United Arab Emirates expects no less. The rules about “red lines” coverage are well documented in the UAE and throughout the Arab world. Still, journalists in the UAE should limit their self-congratulations for progress in the country, while collectively agreeing to ignore such an important topic.

By | November 4th, 2011|Uncategorized|0 Comments

How to define ‘news’ in UAE

Newspapers in the United Arab Emirates
This photo shows the recent front pages of four UAE newspapers — The National, Gulf News, Khaleej Times and Al Bayan (Arabic). Three of the four papers featured a photo of His Highness Sheikh Maktoum bin Rashid visiting with other leaders of the country while The National chose a picture of events in Libya.

The decision in which artwork to run shows how different newsrooms hold different values about what is “news.” I tell my Emirati journalism students that editors weigh potential news based on many criteria including relevance, usefulness and impact. It’s a subjective decision but the choices news producers make have a great impact on society. This example should lead to some good discussions in my journalism classes this semester.

By | September 3rd, 2011|Uncategorized|1 Comment

Yes, James O’Keefe is a journalist

One of my former U.S. students insists that the conservative filmmaker — famed for taking down NPR executives and the liberal activist group ACORN — is not a journalist. She recently asked for my opinion, and I hesitated to reply. I suspect she objects to O’Keefe’s methods — he gathers information through deceptive means and I’m certainly one who frowns upon journalists who lie or mislead their audiences or subjects. But, I think she also objects to O’Keefe’s ideology — but only she knows which objection carries more weight.

This recent NY Times Magazine profile of O’Keefe helps shed light on these issues. Take the time to read it–it’s well-written and largely unbiased. In it, two professors of journalism speak to the issue of whether O’Keefe’s methods are outside the norms of journalism:

“Undercover journalism goes back to at least the 1820s in this country,” says Brooke Kroeger, the director of the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University, who has written a book on the subject, to be published next year. “And the use of hidden cameras to do it came into prominence after World War II.” Muckrakers, of course, are advocates, loved or despised according to the targets they choose. “For years, advocacy groups such as those for a better government have partnered with journalistic organizations,” Kroeger says. “Last year the Humane Society released an undercover video of the inhumane treatment of pigs in Virginia that got picked up by media around the country and won applause from animal lovers. Many of those same people vociferously went after O’Keefe for his exposé of NPR. It’s basically a question of what you care about and what side you are on.”

Earlier this year, two of O’Keefe’s actors, posing as fictitious representatives of a Muslim philanthropic organization, had lunch with Ron Schiller, NPR’s senior vice president for development. In the course of ingratiating himself with these potential donors, Schiller was caught denigrating Tea Party members and Republicans in language that the corporation later said it was appalled by. The scandal hastened the departures of both Schiller and his boss, Vivian Schiller (no relation). When it was suggested that the tapes had been dishonestly edited, O’Keefe invited people to watch them in their entirety. “He said it, that’s just a fact,” Dana Davis Rehm, a spokesman for NPR, said of Ron Schiller. In the aftermath, NPR conducted sessions on ethics for its support and operational staff and is planning to publish updated ethics guidelines in September.

His takedown of Acorn was even more devastating, although Bertha Lewis, Acorn’s former chief executive, contends that the videos were dishonest. “He is demon, a liar and a cheat,” she says. “What he did was despicable. He created a fiction.” Bertha Lewis still insists that Acorn did not offer advice on how to break the law. Clark Hoyt, a former public editor for The New York Times, reviewed O’Keefe’s raw footage and edited tapes and concluded that “the most damning words match the transcripts and the audio, and do not seem out of context.”

There is no doubt that O’Keefe disseminated only the material that supported his thesis about Acorn, but this kind of selectivity is the norm in advocacy journalism. “I put James O’Keefe in the same category as Michael Moore,” says Dean Mills, dean of the University of Missouri’s school of journalism. “Some ethicists say it is never right for a journalist to deceive for any reason, but there are wrongs in the world that will never be exposed without some kind of subterfuge.”

I agree. I think O’Keefe’s methods are questionable but not outside the norms of journalism. His tactics looks quite similar to liberal provocateur Michael Moore, and I certainly consider him a journalist as well. But, they both represent a certain type of “muckraking” journalism — one that belongs on the media fringes, not not on the evening newscasts or metropolitan dailies.

In the end, these partisan journalists add something to media landscape that their more “objective” brethren can’t. And I’d argue that we’re all better off for it.

By | August 27th, 2011|great quotes|1 Comment