Tag Archives: media ethics

Smash hit podcast Serial built audience appeal on questionable reporting practices

So much was impressive about Serial that I’m reluctant to point out some of the intractable ethical problems on which the sensational podcast, which explored over 12 weeks the 1999 murder of a Baltimore teenager, was built. But since Serial’s spectacular success is bound to inspire imitators, and the people who do it next may not be as careful as Serial’s creator, Sarah Koenig, it’s vital to identify these pitfalls, which aren’t minor.

The series, which concluded in mid-December, is widely hailed as the most popular podcast in the admittedly brief history of the medium—some 850,000 downloads per episode—and has spawned virtual boroughs of fans and commentators.

But apart from a posting on the ThinkProgress.org website in November, I haven’t seen any serious meditations on its ethical shortcomings, most of them baked into the core conceit of the program: It aired as a journalistic work-in-progress, sharing its incomplete reporting as it went along.

Serial re-examined the case of 18-year-old high school senior Hae Min Lee, murdered one afternoon in January 1999. Her body was discovered in a park a month later. Police were led to her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, by a friend of his who told police he helped bury the girl. Syed, then 17, allegedly strangled her in a jealous rage and is serving a life sentence.

Koenig, an ex-Baltimore Sun reporter with strong journalistic chops, began looking into the case when she was preparing an item for This American Life, the quirky and compelling public radio series created by Ira Glass. With Glass’s support Koenig and her producers spent months on a minute investigation, interviewing dozens of witnesses, some never contacted for the trial.

That description doesn’t begin to convey how engaging Serial was for its listeners, myself included, and how masterfully Koenig both reconstructed the case and probed the limits of memory and evidence on which her reconstruction was built.

I have nothing but admiration for her craft, but as to whether Serial is a model of “incredibly hard, original journalism” (Philadelphia Inquirer) and a “daring, living piece of serious, journalistic work,” (NBC News), I have big doubts. Most derive from the fact that Serial began airing well before Koenig finished her investigation, and she shared her hunches, speculations, and suppositions as the series unspooled.

That may seem like a commendable reflection of reportorial humility and transparency, but when I first heard Koenig was going public with findings before she had reached any conclusions about what they meant, I was aghast.

First, doing that creates a huge potential for gratuitous defamation if it means sharing damaging conjectures based on suspicions that turned out to be ill-founded. The more the producers advanced hypotheticals about the truthfulness, Continue reading

How much more hacking will the news media gleefully publicize? The twisted ethics of the Sony coverage.

Just before Thanksgiving an entity calling itself the Guardians of Peace shunted an unimaginably vast amount of data pillaged from Sony Pictures Entertainment, one of the world’s foremost movie companies, onto publicly available Internet sites. Then they alerted the news media. Stories hit the wires based on the dump of purloined corporate information, which included pretty much everything: personal emails, salary files, employee health records, unreleased feature films, credit card records, passwords, performance evaluations, scripts from rejected TV pilots, and 47,400 Social Security numbers of current and former employees.

The scale and impact of what CNN called the “extraordinary and devastating cyberattack” were both unprecedented—as Buzzfeed put it, “the most embarrassing and all-encompassing hack of internal corporate data ever made public.” While 40 gigabytes of data were released, the hackers claimed to have 100 terabytes in hand. That would be five times the estimated size of the Library of Congress’s book collection.

Stories based on private online chitchat among Sony executives disparaging actors, directors, and other collaborators got big play, as did pay comparisons, strategic musings, details of big show biz contracts, evidence of huge diversity gaps and gender disparities, a counterattack by Hollywood stars, and confirmation of the long-held belief “that the film business was full of back-stabbing egomaniacs,” as a Guardian writer observed.

For its part, Sony responded with both groveling apologetics and a stern warning from its attorney, the celebrated David Boies—hero of the successful Microsoft antitrust suit and the unsuccessful attempt to keep George W. Bush out of the White House in 2000—that news media would be sued if they didn’t delete the stolen material. That’s a warning that few people regarded as legally plausible, and would have put Sony on a legal collision course with its fellow Hollywood movie giants that also own big news media, notably Walt Disney Co. (ABC and Fusion) and Time Warner (Time Inc.), which had weighed in with substantial hacking coverage of their own.

Sony also decided—after threats were posted of possible reprisals against cinemas showing the satirical movie that apparently provoked the hack, in which the leader of North Korea is assassinated—to withhold it from theatrical release. It’s now talking to online distributors about relying exclusively on Internet-based rental channels.

But I want to look at the ethics of the assault on Sony, which drew some initial comment but which deserves more sustained consideration. While the wrongness of what the hackers did is clear, the complicity of the news media in aiding and abetting them has been less thoroughly condemned.

In my view this is an affair that exquisitely compresses some of the most troubling ethical issues of journalism in the digital age. “West Wing” writer and producer Aaron Sorkin—who got “dinged,” as he put it, in hacked emails about a project he’s scripting for Sony—wrote an angry Op-Ed column for the New York Times wondering, in a word, what gives? What’s the justification for the news media to take part in such wholesale informational plunder? Continue reading

Cosby affair asks whether media can be engines not of news, but of justice

To someone who came of age regarding The Washington Post as the journalistic gold standard, it was a puzzling moment. On The Post’s website Nov. 13 was a first-person account by a former actress titled: “Bill Cosby raped me. Why did it take 30 years for people to believe my story?”

The 1,200-word article never answered that question, but Barbara Bowman, now a married mother of two in Arizona, did describe a relationship with Cosby in the mid-‘80s when she was a teenage ingenue and he was a huge star. Cosby purported to take an interest in her career, she wrote, but his mentoring was a fig leaf for predation and ended with him drugging and abusing her sexually in New York.

Now, the Post hadn’t investigated her account itself and didn’t do its own story on Cosby until more than a week after it ran Bowman’s, when it weighed in with a richly reported chronicle of what was becoming a cascade of similar allegations.

This seemed like a case of “fire, ready, aim.” I couldn’t remember another instance when a top-tier news organization had published a detailed denunciation from somebody it couldn’t vouch for, against a person generally regarded as a public benefactor, that it had not first examined independently.

Women have continued to come forward, and the number who’ve accused the onetime comedy giant of various depravities stands at 20, by Slate’s count. Cosby’s intended show biz comeback has been stowed in the deepest of deep freezes, and he’s being consigned to a seemingly irretrievable disgrace, suitable for no comedic use beyond a punchline.

Well deserved, it appears. But my interest is in the media, and I think it’s important to point out that Bill Cosby’s destruction is entirely the work of the news media. That’s not a criticism. When it came to gathering evidence, assessing the record, making judgments about credibility and falsehood, and ultimately deciding reward and punishment, there has been nobody around but the media.

That isn’t the way the system normally works. And I worry that if this becomes a precedent, it will assign to news media a power they may not be able to handle properly.

Normally, the media set in motion the machinery of justice. They blow the whistle on apparent wrongdoing. They tee up a case like Cosby’s by doing the background reporting, encouraging reluctant witnesses to step forward. Reporters offer findings they believe are strong enough to warrant the attention of authorities; then the systems of criminal or civil adjudication get to work—charges are brought, suits are filed, justice is served.

Ultimately, there will be reckonings that are regarded as authoritative.

But the Cosby affair is different. There is no higher court here. Whether it’s because victims were too scared, police were too timid, laws were too weak, plaintiffs too willing to settle, or evidence too thin—the judicial system is by now largely irrelevant.

So there may never be authoritative verdicts about whether Bill Cosby hurt those Continue reading

News media’s growing Facebook co-dependency challenges journalism’s limits on acquiring informational ethically

In the pre-dawn of the media age the main delivery system for news in much of the country consisted of sleepy boys on bikes, who pedaled from house to house before daybreak and stuck papers into mailboxes or threw them in the general vicinity of front doors.

I did that one summer for The Washington Post, a dreary job that was legal only thanks to the longstanding exemptions from child labor laws the newspaper industry had finagled. I got a dollar per subscriber per month. It would’ve been more, except the boy who had sublet the route to me insisted on handling the collections and, I later learned, pocketing the tips.

Now, under traditional newspaper economics, what subscribers paid for their papers covered only distribution costs. If the papers had been distributed cost-free to subscribers, publishers could have given them away and still made a profit. The real money was from advertising.

As it still is. Now, however, things have changed. I started thinking about how radically they’d changed after reading a pair of articles in The New York Times about Facebook. The stupendously successful social media network has morphed from a place where friendships are carried on to one of the primary ways that people find out about the world.

Citing a Pew Research Center study, The Times noted that 64 percent of U.S. adults use Facebook at least monthly, and roughly half of them get news there. That means that instead of clicking directly to the home pages of news outfits to find out what the editors there think readers should know about, the readers are taking the advice of Facebook friends: They then enter news sites through side doors to view what the editors there might very well consider sideshows.

In effect, the news organization’s Facebook presence has become its online newsrack.

I first became aware that this was Facebook’s plan back in 2011. That’s when the company’s brass—led by Sheryl Sandberg, who hadn’t yet become the cultural lodestone she is now, but was still Facebook’s chief operating officer and a speaker of immense appeal—carpet-bombed the American Society of News Editors annual gathering in San Diego with a single message: Facebook was the future of news.

Facebook was aiming to become the Macy’s window on the Internet for the news biz, offering fully modern functionality, visual pizzazz, and, above all, an unbeatable storefront on the same network that was fast becoming the choice online meet-up space for about a fifth of humanity.

That seems to be what now has happened. By throwing in with Facebook, news sites rent space in a virtual metropolis teeming with enthusiasts, who send traffic their way, and permeated by commercial vendors.

That’s the good part of the story. The rest of the story is that their readers’ online comings and goings, likes and dislikes, are noted, rummaged, inventoried, and harvested for data to be acted on and resold by Facebook and its collaborators.

It’s as if, back when newspapers were hand-delivered, they were given away for free. Then, in exchange, the paper boys got to record their observations about cars in the driveway and bikes in the yard, sift through the subscribers’ trash bins for commercially actionable intelligence, note any repairs on the house, check if the garden was tended and see which veggies were growing, and pass along information about family visitors, backyard swing sets, retail buying, empty milk bottles, etc.

None of that would be appealing, but a larger question looms: Isn’t Facebook-style informational pillage especially problematic when it’s undertaken on behalf Continue reading

Murder of journalists puts news media in a quandary

The murders of the U.S. journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff by their Islamist captors were trivial horrors in the spiraling calamity that has engulfed Syria and Iraq. Still, to me they were uniquely painful for reasons unrelated to the region’s incomparably greater misfortunes: They were the needless deaths of brave and committed professionals, they pointed up the frayed logic of this country’s no-ransom policy, and they reminded us of the vulnerability of the corps of freelancers on which our media increasingly rely for news from the world’s most desperate places.

As news stories the killings were was not just grim and depressing, they were perplexing too, because they couldn’t help but call into question the wisdom and morality of the considerations that define news and dictate how news is presented.

Reports of the deaths were inextricably interwoven with the spectacle that the killers created out of them, and for the news media, it was impossible to report the murders without dealing with the video of their final moments—whether displaying it, suppressing it, alluding to it, or excerpting from it.

This isn’t the first time that has happened, but I think the need for media to strike the balance between, on the one hand, judiciously conveying publicly significant information and imagery and, on the other, refusing to serve as a terrorist conduit requires a moral clarity that has been elusive.

I didn’t view the video of either killing and don’t intend to, for reasons that will be clearer in a moment, but my understanding from those who have is that they don’t actually show the beheadings. The screen fades to black as the ostensible executioner, standing alongside their kneeling prisoners, brings out the knife; the images return to show the immediate aftermath.

I mention that apparent fastidiousness to make a point that’s important—that these weren’t newsreels; the “news”—the slaughter itself–wasn’t shown. What was shown was a carefully composed set piece of physical domination and verbal polemic constructed around an offscreen act of cruelty, and it was produced to make a point.

The reluctance of various news media to show the videos—and the decision by Twitter and YouTube to remove the Foley video from their servers, and Continue reading

Freed POW Bergdahl is an attractive candidate for scapegoat for a war U.S. public has abandoned

 

No accounting has been demanded for the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The architects of those disasters have shuffled off-stage now to their pensions and honorarias; some occasionally return to the public forum as learned commentators, as if their lethal stupidities of a decade ago now qualify them as experts on the bad choices to come.

Meanwhile the real leaders—Cheney, Bush, Rumsfeld—are hanging back, presumably hoping the next wave of revisionism will restore to them the reputations for wisdom and courage they imagine they deserve. Hey, why not? Their victims are either dead or ignored. Even Nixon was remembered for statesmanship by the time he died.

In this country, we don’t have truth and reconciliation commissions, which elsewhere invite the victims of social calamities to talk publicly, and which try to restore dignity to those who suffered and to lay the seeds for futures in which such debacles won’t recur.

Instead, the engrained U.S. response to catastrophes—such as laying waste to other lands without cause—is to change the channel. In Scarlett O’Hara’s words, “Tomorrow’s another day.” Or as Kinky Friedman put it, “Let Saigons be bygones.”

When the urge for retrospection arises, chances are it won’t be to demand accountability. It’ll be to seek scapegoats. Hence the Bowe Bergdahl affair, an unfolding chapter in how the longest war in U.S. history is being imagined.

Bergdahl was the only U.S. prisoner of war left in Afghanistan. He was freed last month after being held by the Taliban under often harrowing conditions for almost five years. When he was captured he was a 23-year-old private first class (he’s only a sergeant now because he was promoted while in Taliban hands.) Actually, he was a home-schooled grunt from Idaho who had a longing for adventure, a flair for wordplay, and a loathing for the miseries of war.

The initial jubilance surrounding his release quickly subsided. The first buzz-killer was the exchange that freed him, in which five ex-Taliban officials were released from Guantanamo. Obama critics condemned them immediately as “some of the worst outlaws in the U.S. war on terror,” or, as Sen. John McCain declared, “the five biggest murderers in world history,” killers with U.S. blood on their hands.

That’s quite a stretch. Actually three of the five had been in U.S. hands since November 2001 and the other two since Continue reading

On Google, the curse of the Permanent Record, and the right to be forgotten

 

Once, we came of age under the shadow of something called a Permanent Record. Nobody ever actually saw one, but it was a scary thing, and as youngsters we understood we had to keep our own permanent records clean, since any stains on them could do lifelong damage.

Plainly, the idea of an authoritative, ineradicable ledger on individual behavior is a powerful one. Widespread too. You see it in everything from the divine Book of Life to the gift list kept by Santa, who knows if you’ve been naughty or nice.

That permanent record meant somebody was paying attention, which was good, but it was also a brooding and oppressive background presence, since it enabled even trivial sins to curse our futures.

A good thing it was largely mythic. Back then, actual record-keeping was spotty and forgetful, and technology had zero ability to corral the manifold traces that we leave as we make our way through life into some all-knowing compendium.

No longer. Welcome to the digital age. Its mighty search engines have spawned a virtual permanent record for millions of individuals. It’s updated constantly, lasts forever, and is in fulltime public view.

What gets in it and with what prominence—those are mysteries, depending on the alchemy of particular search engines. Generally, it seems, they suck up most anything about someone that was published or resides in Internet-accessible public records. (The search engines don’t scour social media like Twitter and Facebook, yet.)

That means the fraternity house dustup that led to a sleepover in jail, or the rude remark at a political rally, or any of a thousand missteps and embarrassments that in a pre-modern age would have faded into oblivion—the debris of what Justice John Paul Stevens called the “practical obscurity” we used to inhabit—remain vivid, alive and, potentially, toxic.

Hence the importance of last month’s ruling by Europe’s highest court. It authorizes people to demand that links to material that threatens their privacy be scrubbed from search results.

The case involves Google, the California-based colossus that handles roughly 90 percent of Europe’s Internet searches. It was brought by a Spaniard who challenged a link to a 1998 item in a Catalan newspaper about the auction of his home, which was repossessed to pay off debts he owed. He reasoned that the matter had been resolved ages ago and there was no reason people who googled

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