Advancing the story: Salvation Army and the LGBT Community

The Salvation Army is always a major point of attention around the holidays: Bell ringers in the streets make sure you are aware of the season and encourage you to drop your change in the signature red bucket – capitalizing on the idea of giving at Christmas time. The organization does a lot of good: it has a strong emergency response system, operates in needy hospitals and clinics, and campaigns against modern slavery and trafficking internationally. However, the group also has a strong anti-gay past and, in today’s modern age, I think it is something that we shouldn’t stand for. There are plenty of organizations doing just as much good without actively discriminating against a large subject of the population, so, when the holidays roll around, I am always frustrated with how much people praise this group. A Gay News Network article about how the Salvation Army recently redeclared its support of Safe Schools (which aims to stop transphobic and homophobic bullying in schools) caught my attention. While the article did acknowledge that the group had a “chequered past” with LGBT rights, I thought it glossed over the group’s history too much and wanted to offer alternatives to readers considering where to donate this holiday season.

My comment, written Nov. 27, has not yet appeared on the story, but this is what I posted:

“Chequered past” seems like a simplified way to categorize how the Salvation Army has historically discriminated against the LGBT community. The organization’s longstanding anti-gay actions can be traced back as far as the 1990s in the U.S., when the Salvation Army turned down millions of dollars in contracts with San Francisco because the city required that contractors provide spousal benefits to both same-sex partners and opposite-sex partners of employees. This move eliminated programs for homeless people and senior citizens. In 1986, the Salvation Army of New Zealand actively collected signatures to kill the Homosexual Law Reform Act, which decriminalized sexual conduct between two men. As recently as 2012, The Salvation Army or Burlington, VT fired a case worker after learning she was bisexual. This charity has routinely maintained very public anti-gay stances and discriminated against LGBT employees and their partners. 

It is great that the organization is trying to mend it’s relationship with the community with the support of Safe Schools, but if you are looking to donate to organizations that have historically supported LGBT people and programs, consider The Red Cross, Goodwill, Doctors Without Borders, and The Trevor Project. 


Media Conglomerates Kill the Marketplace of Ideas

During our first class under Dan Kennedy’s instruction, we talked a lot about newspaper ownership, both by billionaires like Jeff Bezos and John Henry, but also by companies like Time Warner and Comcast. In this post, I would like to discuss the ethical considerations of allowing single corporations to dominate ownership of multiple media outlets. As I discussed in class, I have less of a problem with billionaire ownership, and find models like News Corp to be much more alarming.

For a little bit of background, there are six companies, known as the “Big Six,” that own roughly 90 percent of media outlets: Comcast, The Walt Disney Company, New Corporation, Time Warner, Vitacom and CBS Corporation. These companies control all of the major network news channels, as well as a majority of cable networks and a selection of major newspapers. Similarly, single corporations own competing companies: News Corp owns both the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post, for example.

Here lies my ethical consideration: These six companies, across countless forms of media and outlets, are in control of how we consume our news, how information gets to us and, perhaps most alarmingly, what information gets to us. Media consolidation threatens free press and the free exchange of ideas in a number of ways, and I will outline the two I find most pressing below:

Competing Viewpoints (or a Lack There Of)

When major corporations are responsible for creating and disseminating the news, large media houses are able to control when, where and what we hear. Billions of viewers get only a handful of viewpoints, and a number of those viewpoints are relatively similar considering they are owned by relatively similar companies and people. A big criticism of the media during this election was a liberal bias, and who can blame the critics? With only six companies deciding which viewpoints will be broadcast across hundreds of mediums, is it no surprise that every outlet expresses the same opinions. This lack of diversity in ownership leads to a lack of diversity in all aspects of news coverage, from who delivers it to what is delivered. The reality of media consolidation threatens the “marketplace of ideas” concept applied by the Supreme Court in so many first amendment cases.

Loyalty: Principle v. Proceeds

Without significant competition in the media industry, every company is basically guaranteed a national audience. This lack of competition reduces a need for quality news coverage and investigative reporting, allowing companies to prioritize profit over the public interest. A commercially driven news media is committed first to its advertisers and bottom line – not to the truth or to the best interest of its consumers.

There are a number of other ethical concerns that media consolidation raises, but these are the two we discussed most extensively in class. My biggest concern by this media monopoly is the lack of diversity that surely exists in media coverage because of it. As John Mayer once relevantly sang: “When they own the information, they can bend it all they want.” The purpose of a free press is to give competing ideas and viewpoints a place to live, providing for a free and educated electorate. Without this marketplace of ideas, the media fails its original purpose.

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Campaigns and Coverage: A discussion with Matthew Dowd

Ethics Angle Event Coverage

At the end of October, ABC News political analyst Matthew Dowd spoke to Northeastern students about the distinctiveness of this election cycle. He spoke to party divides, previously unseen campaign strategies, and how this election stands to change the face of American politics. A journalism “convert,” Dowd was once the chief strategist for the Bush-Cheney ’04 presidential campaign before making his way to the media. As someone who spent time on both sides of political campaigns, Dowd was uniquely positioned to discuss the rhetoric we’ve seen from major news organizations and candidate press offices alike.

As he discussed the rise of independent party candidates, Dowd also spoke to some of the most important ethical elements of covering campaigns for a major news network. First, he said discovering of the truth is where every journalist must place their loyalty. Before covering an election, Dowd recommends every journalist looks inside themselves to discover their biases, be it where you’re from, political preferences, gender, sexuality, race, etc. Then, journalists must figure out how to get past them. If they can’t do that, Dowd said, they will never be able to effectively cover an election. He stressed truth seeking again when discussing what to consider when dealing with the public: “Tell the truth and be honest.”

Next, Dowd discussed the general concepts of integrity and authenticity, as it relates to both journalists and politicians. The general way Dowd described each of these principles was making sure actions and words aligned – it’s not enough to say something, you have to be willing to demonstrate it. While Gandhi said “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony” – Dowd said that is the definition of integrity.

At the end of the talk, I was given the opportunity to ask the journalist a question: “As a journalist, what ethical considerations arise when you’re covering an election?”

Check out his answer below.

Personal Ethics Code

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A journalist’s first duty is to seek and report the truth. It is up to the media to hold people of power (primarily the government and business operators) accountable and to act as an independent entity. Accuracy and fairness must guide all journalists in their day-to-day work, seeking to tell only the truth, minimize harm and provide opportunity to all sides of a story. The following principles will serve as a guide for myself and other aspiring journalists as we face ethical conundrums and are confronted with our own morals in the course of our work. 

Be Accurate

A journalist’s first loyalty is to the truth. Reporters must place seeking the truth before the interests of the audience, the publication and their own personal beliefs. This is an impossible task if not focused on the important of accuracy. It is unethical to report on any subject without diligence in reporting and verification. Assumptions must be challenged and claims must be verified before a reporter has completed his or her professional and moral duty. A good and ethical journalist will take responsibility for the accuracy of their work, be prepared to defend what they have reported on a worldwide stage, and provide access to source material where possible. Taking responsibility for accuracy includes simple actions, such as verifying the correct spelling of a name and being sure to attend all events that may be relevant to a piece. A lazy and unethical journalist will take what is given to them as fact, rely on secondary sources and focus on only one side of a story.

Minimize Harm

 In the relentless pursuit of the truth, it is important that journalists maintain their humanity and seek to reflect respect of sources and minimize harm whenever possible. The best way to minimize harm is to exercise compassion – the title of journalist does not allow for reckless spewing of information or a lack of empathy when it comes to human stakeholders. It is important to respect those in delicate situations and be especially sensitive to victims of sexual violence, family of the recently deceased, subjects who are unable to give consent, minors and other vulnerable subjects.

When reporting, it is up to the journalist to weigh the importance of a piece against potential harms. While it is important to understand that many stories will cause harm to at least one party, it is reckless and unethical to publish pieces where harm outweighs benefit. Consider long-term implications when reporting and do your best to protect and defend vulnerable people and situations. 

Be Fair  

In keeping with the importance of accuracy, it is impossible to present a full and correct story without being fair to all parties involved. Subjects of criticism and allegations deserve the same space and opportunity to speak as those who bring forth the criticism. It is the journalist’s responsibility to not publish or act on unfounded or unverified information. Reporters who do not consider all sides of a story and make efforts to show where each side is coming from are unfair and, as an extension, unethical. It is also important to add balance and context to a story. Objectivity may not always be possible or the best course of action, but it is the practice of an ethical journalist to be as fair as possible to all stakeholders.

Be Accountable

Often referred to as a pillar of democracy, the free press maintains a high level of accountability to its audience. Just as journalists are not expected to take information at face value, an audience has no responsibility to blindly trust a news organization ­­– trust and confidence in a journalist or news source must be earned. To achieve this, newspapers, broadcast stations, radio networks, magazines and individual reporters must be held accountable to their audience. An ethical journalist never publishes a piece they cannot justify to the entire world; they stick to their word; and they promise to be held accountable for the moral decisions they make.

An invaluable part of accountability is admitting when mistakes are made. Every journalist alive has committed a mistake and must be willing to admit fault, do everything possible to correct the mistake, respond to audience concerns, and take steps to insure the mistake will not be made again. Issuing corrections is an ethical thing to do. Ethical decisions must be explained and unethical conduct must be exposed. Journalists must take responsibility for their work and be willing to defend it.

An extension of taking responsibility for choices: journalists who are practicing accountability are vouching for their unnamed sources. A journalist who makes the decision to use anonymous sources must be willing to stand by their decision when confronted – be it by audience members, government agencies or other sources. If a ethical reporter uses an unnamed source, they are taking accountability for the accuracy of the information and promising to uphold the initial agreement of anonymity.

Act with Independence and Transparency

Independence is a nonnegotiable part of a journalist’s responsibility – reporters are accountable only to the truth and the audience. Personal and professional interests must not play a role in the collecting and reporting of news, or an unethical threat to credibility will arise. Transparency is an important part of acting with independence – reporters, editors and publishers should disclose political affiliations, any prior connection to a topic or source, any conflict of interest and all relevant financial arrangements. Objectivity does not need to equal independence – in some cases objectivity does not advance the story in a positive way (ex. In cases of abuse or inhumanity) but if a reporter is a victim of abuse or is otherwise connected to a story, that must be disclosed in order to maintain an ethical level of transparency. In the interest of independence, reporters with personal connections should usually avoid stories that prevent a conflict of interest – similar to a judge recusing him or herself from a case.

Publicizing Preteens

Recently, a class discussion about the “Slender Man” trial brought up the ethical issues that come along with covering stories that include minors. I found this issue particularly interesting and wanted to make a short post that touches on some of the various ethical issues, specifically when it comes to covering juvenile courts. 

Before I drew my own ethical conclusions, I did some research about laws and questions to consider when deciding what to publish in these instances. Poynter recommends evaluating each instance from multiple angles before deciding the right move on a case-to-case basis. Each state also has different laws regarding juvenile identification. The considerations that made me think the most were: 

Identification – Is there a journalistic purpose in identifying the juvenile? 

Charge – Has the juvenile been charged or are they just a suspect? Is the evidence strong? 

Harm – How much harm was done in the process of the crime? 

Exposure – Is the juvenile’s identification widely known already?

Understanding – How old is this juvenile? Were they capable of understanding the situation he/she is involved in?

I had considered most of these questions before my research, but had not considered the “charge” section. In most cases I read that identify the juvenile, the court process has progressed enough that the charges of the suspect have been substantially identified. But this brings up a good point about covering cases at an arraignment level – before pleas have been entered and evidence has been presented, it probably does more harm than is necessary to identify an underage person. If the charge is ultimately dropped, the harm of identification has already been done. 

I also think the “harm” consideration was interesting. From a legal standpoint, does it matter if the person is a petty thief or a murderer? Probably not, as long as you are following the legal process for the state you are in. From an ethical standpoint, I think it does matter. In the vein of “the punishment should fit the crime,” it probably serves the journalistic value of “informing the people” to identify someone who murdered or sexually assaulted another person, but it probably does an imbalanced amount of harm to identify a 13-year-old who stole a can of soup for his family. In the digital age, these questions are even more important – once a subject is identified online, they will always be identified that way. 

I think it is important to establish guidelines for journalists across the board. In researching for the post, just 15 minutes after discussing a “Slender Man” article that identified two 12-year-old girls, I found an article about an 8-year-old who killed his father and father’s friend. His name was not released. Additionally, photos of the “Slender Man” girls were released, but in the video confession of the 8-year-old, his face was blurred and voice distorted. 

I think this would be an interesting topic for my final paper and I hope to explore it more.  

Writing Ethical Headlines

Headlines represent a place in journalism where ethical calls on language are particularly important. From a story with an abundance of facts and implications, a headline writer must make a call on which parts of the story are important enough to be featured in the headline. The Brock Turner Case Study  is an example of how these decisions backfired – while many chose to see Turner as a swimmer, Stanford student or All-Star athlete, readers felt the more important part of the story was his conviction as a rapist. These headlines were, in most cases, changed to reflect different details.

In order to understand the tough decisions that come with headline writing, let’s practice writing our own. Before we begin, consider that good headlines usually try to do the following:

  • Help your audience evaluate whether or not the topic you’ve written is relevant or of interest to them
  • Provide a summary of what your writing is about, in as few words as possible
  • Gives your reader a reason to click from the point of discovery (where they found your headline first)
  • Has keywords aligned to what they might be searching for – more important in the age of SEO or inbound marketing purposes

From the following set of facts, try to come up with the best headline:

A single-engine plane crash-landed near Stinson Airport yesterday, damaging a few cars but leaving the pilot and passenger with only minor injuries.

The single-engine Beechcraft Sierra propeller plane struck three cars parked near a Little League baseball game. No one on the ground was injured. The pilot, Herbert Young, 25, of Atherton, suffered cuts and bruises.

The passenger, Sarah Shields, 19, of Clovia, was held at Memorial Hospital for check of a possible concussion. Young said the plane lost power while he was practicing taking off and landing.

Fred R. Thornton, 32, was sentenced to nine months in jail yesterday for taking part in a cross burning at the home of a racially mixed couple two months ago.

Thornton, 456 Graceland St., was sentenced by District Court Judge Richard Franks, who said the crime was “despicable.” Thornton had pleaded guilty to a charge of bias harassment. He and two other men ignited two planks arranged to form a cross in the couple’s driveway, prosecutors said.

The men had spent the night drinking in Thornton’s home. The two other men have entered not guilty pleas and will be tried next month.

A fourth-grade student has caused a company to recall pencils with an anti-drug message. The message on the pencils read, “Too Cool to Do Drugs.”

But 10-year-old Arthur Metzler of 98 Arden Way pointed out that when the pencil is sharpened it can read, “Cool to Do Drugs,” and, as it is sharpened still more, “Do Drugs.”

The Britton Pencil Co. pencil will now read, “Too Cool to Do.”

Sources: Jeremy Porter, McGraw-Hill Global Education Holdings, LLC.

Is talk cheap?

Language as an ethical decision

Journalists have the ability to shape national conversation in multiple ways. Not only do newspapers and broadcast stations often determine what we are talking about, but they also have the ability to choose what side we take and what facts we consider. Because of this power, choice of language is an important decision each journalist faces. From an ethical standpoint, choice of language is what keeps a journalist honest, unbiased and holds them to standards we have come to expect of our news sources. In this discussion, we will consider how language is an ethical decision and how journalists should consider morality when crafting a piece.

“Ethical journalists use language ethically, considering the truthfulness, the precision, the impact and the long-term consequences of the words used. Unethical journalists, on the other hand, are careless with the language.” – John C. Merrill, Journalism Ethics

Brock Turner Case Study

Last year, the case of People v. Turner was one of the most publicized lawsuits of the year. The case, which accused Brock Turner of three counts of sexual assault, garnered massive attention for more than just the facts of the case, which were (in short) as follows:

  • Turner, a swimmer at Stanford University, was found by two passersby on top of an unconscious woman near a fraternity house.
  • He was arrested and charged with rape of an intoxicated person, rape of an unconscious person, assault with intent to rape an intoxicated woman, sexually penetrating an intoxicated person with a foreign object and sexually penetrating an unconscious person with a foreign object.
  • He was eventually charged with assault with intent to rape an intoxicated woman, sexually penetrating an intoxicated person with a foreign object, and sexually penetrating an unconscious person with a foreign object.

What attracted the attention of a nation, however, is what many saw as Turner’s “privileged” treatment throughout the trial process and his subsequent early release from jail. Turner was sentenced to six months in jail after a judge determined that more time behind bars would be “damaging” to his overall well being. He was released after three months for good behavior. He was banned from USA swimming, banned from the Stanford campus (he withdrew before facing disciplinary action) and will be forced to register as a sex offender. While these facts can be seen by some as troublesome on their own, for the purposes of journalism ethics we will discuss backlash surrounding media coverage of the case.

Media Coverage  

For some, what they considered special treatment of Turner continued in the media coverage of his trial, imprisonment and release from jail. More specifically, readers found it problematic that major news sources (CNN, Sports Illustrated, TIME, BBC, etc.) continue to refer to Turner as “Stanford swimmer” but none labeled him the sex offender he was found to be, or referenced his crime. It is also worth noting that none of the articles I found quoted the 7,200-word statement released by the victim.

Backlash of Media Coverage

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Following the backlash from the Twitter-sphere and by commenters, a few news sources changed their headlines to more accurately describe the crime committed.

The original Sports Illustrated headline read “Stanford Swimmer Brock Turner to be released from jail.” It now reads “Ex-Stanford swimmer convicted of rape released from jail.”

SI reporter Scooby Axson said he was unaware of the public backlash at first and, while he wrote the original headline, it was his editing team that changed it, “partly because of the backlash.”

“We all know he was convicted of sexual assault but it is up to each entity to decide whether they want to insult the audience’s intelligence,  or whether they want to use stronger terms like rapist or convicted rapist in the headline,” Axson said.

In the case of TIME, the editors even replaced the story’s lede – which originally referred to him as a “star swimmer,” but made no mention of the crime. The original headline read “Stanford Swimmer Brock Turner Has Been Released from Jail” with this as the leading paragraph: “He was released three months early for good behavior – Former Stanford student and star swimmer Brock Turner was released from Santa Clara County jail on Friday.” Now, the headline is “Brock Turner Released After Serving 3 Months for Sexual Assault” and the lede says: “He was released three months early for good behavior -Former Stanford student Brock Turner was released from Santa Clara County jail on Friday after serving three months for sexual assault.”

Reporter Kate Samuelson did not respond to request for comment.

Other journalists have spoken out on the choice of language and how it contributes to an unhealthy rape culture in our country:

“Because Turner was a star swimmer at Stanford, coverage of his trial received the ‘once-promising future’ treatment. In reporting on sexual assault, media outlets show a pattern of focusing on how the assailant has a bright future and how the current case could ruin his upward trajectory — most articles about Turner include a nice portrait of him instead of his mugshot.” – Dahlia Grossman-Heinze, Bitch Media

“The rush to humanize Turner and grant him a lenient sentence is an example of a system that elevates the voices and experiences of white men, and dismisses violence against women. As a young, successful white male athlete, Turner benefits from a level of compassion and empathy rarely expressed for any other group of people in America, a benefit of the doubt that people of color and women rarely get.” – Prachi Gupta, Cosmopolitan

Ethical questions for discussion:

  • How is the choice of language an ethical decision in journalism?
  • Is it the media’s responsibility to label Brock Turner a certain way – why or why not?
    • Was there a third option?
  • Are there any examples you’ve seen in the media where language choice – not incorrect fact – has changed a story?
    • Is it ethical for the language to be changed if the public responds poorly to it?
  • While it may not be the fault of headline writers that this culture of rape and unequal treatment exists, do journalists, as humans, have a moral duty to do what they can to combat it?

For more about writing ethical headlines, check out this post.