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Chris Cuomo, Brotherhood, and Morality

side-by-side photographs of Andrew and Chris Cuomo

On Thursday, CNN suspended its prime-time news anchor Chris Cuomo “indefinitely, pending further evaluation.” By Saturday, he had been terminated. The move comes shortly after documents revealed a “cozy and improper” relationship between Chris Cuomo and the political aides of his brother, Andrew Cuomo, former governor of New York.

Andrew Cuomo recently resigned as governor amid numerous allegations of sexual misconduct. Shortly before that scandal became public, Chris Cuomo held regular friendly, even comic, interviews with his brother. He also reportedly held “strategic discussions” with his brother about how best to respond to the allegations. A few days ago, the New York attorney general’s office released more documents showing Cuomo used media sources to uncover information about those who were accusing his brother of sexual misconduct. This triggered CNN’s move to suspend the anchor. CNN claimed these documents showed “a greater level of involvement in his brother’s efforts than we previously knew.”

Even before these latest revelations, many of Cuomo’s colleagues regarded his behavior as violating journalistic ethical standards, which aim to maintain a healthy barrier between those who report and those who are being reported upon. “This is a no-brainer,” says Mark Feldstein, chair of the broadcast journalism department at the University of Maryland and former staff member at CNN. “Journalism Ethics 101: journalists should never cover family members. It’s a glaring conflict of interest.” Cuomo himself now calls the discussions with his brother and his aides “inappropriate” and a “mistake.”

There is little dispute that Chris Cuomo’s behavior violated journalistic and impersonal ethical standards in seeking to help his brother. But, and here is the philosophical puzzle, was he, at the same time, also being a good brother? Cuomo explained that he was “family first; job second” and singularly committed to “be there for my family, which I must.” If Cuomo was simply being a good brother, does this mean that being a good brother can conflict with being moral? In such a case, which should we choose? Looking for answers to these questions forces us to take sides in a philosophical debate about the bounds of morality.

As the joke has it, a friend will help you move, but a good friend will help you move a body. But at the heart of the joke is a serious point. Sometimes, as Cuomo has discovered, the demands of morality seem to conflict with the demands that our personal relationships put on us.

Some think that this apparent potential for conflict between the demands of morality and those of our personal relationships is just an illusion. Regarding friendship, Aristotle thought that good friends take an interest in their friends’ moral development. We want our friends to be better people — the best versions of themselves. A good friend wouldn’t help you to indulge in immoral behavior or to avoid facing the consequences. A good friend would encourage you to face up to what you ought to do. We might think the same about Cuomo. Perhaps a good brother would not help his sibling to navigate a series of sexual misconduct allegations. Perhaps, then, Cuomo was being both unethical and a bad brother. On this view, there is no real conflict of values. The standards of both morality and brotherhood condemn Chris Cuomo’s behavior.

But this Aristotelian approach is arguably an overly moralized conception of friendship, or, in our case, brotherhood. Contrary to the Aristotelian view, it certainly seems possible for good friends to not particularly care about each other’s moral development. Imagine two kids who enjoy getting into mischief together. The Aristotelian view implies that they simply aren’t good friends, but that doesn’t seem correct. So perhaps the Aristotelian view is false and there really is a tension between the demands of morality and those of our personal relationships.

So, we’re back to the idea that there is a genuine conflict between being a good brother and a morally good person. Let’s examine that apparent conflict more closely.

We generally think morality is impartial. When something is the moral thing to do, it’s the moral thing to do for everybody. At least, this is what the two most famous moral theories — Kantianism and Utilitarianism — claim. According to Kant, we’re acting morally so long as we’re treating peoples’ humanity not merely as a means, but (also) as an end. According to Utilitarianism, we’re acting morally so long as our actions produce the best outcome of the available options. These are both wholly impartial theories of morality. Everyone counts the same as everyone else. It doesn’t matter who the person in front of you is, or what your relationship with them is; morally, you just treat them the same as anyone else!

On the other hand, the demands of friendship and family are clearly not impartial. If you are a good friend, the fact that your friend is your friend means you will treat her better than you would a stranger. We often think we shouldn’t treat our friends or family just like we treat everyone else. So, the conflict between morality and friendship/family can be thought of as a conflict between acting impartially and morally, on the one hand, and acting partially, in favor of our friends and family, on the other.

Here is another reason to think there is, contrary to appearances, no real conflict between morality and brotherhood. We might be going wrong in thinking of morality as totally impersonal. Maybe the partial demands of friendship and family are genuine moral demands too. This idea is called “moral pluralism.”

Moral pluralists agree that the impersonal values that morality generally focuses upon — such as promoting general well-being — are important moral values. But they don’t think they are the only important moral values. According to the moral pluralist, Cuomo didn’t face a conflict between the demands of brotherhood and those of morality. Instead, the value pluralist would say Cuomo faced a conflict within morality, between two important moral values — of impersonal morality and of brotherhood. This provides a very different picture of Cuomo’s dilemma.

On this moral pluralist view, Chris Cuomo had good moral reasons to try to help his brother. He also had good moral reasons to maintain his distance and journalistic independence. This leaves us with a difficult question; which should he have done? Here, the moral pluralist faces the task of weighing these reasons against each other to form an overall, all-things-considered judgment.

The kind of dilemma Cuomo faced, between taking particular care of those you are closest to or living up to impersonal ethical standards, is not rare. The same (apparent) conflict can be found in choosing whether to donate to an effective charity or buy a Christmas present for someone you love, or choosing whether to let your friend copy your answers in a school test. These apparent dilemmas force us to confront some particularly tricky philosophical puzzles — puzzles about the nature of friendship, of familial bonds, and which values we include in our conception of morality.

On Journalistic Malpractice

photograph of TV camera in news studio

In 2005, then-CNN anchor Lou Dobbs reported that the U.S. had suffered over 7,000 cases of leprosy in the previous three years and attributed this to an “invasion of illegal immigrants.” Actually, the U.S. had seen roughly that many leprosy cases over the previous three decades, but Dobbs stubbornly refused to issue a retraction, instead insisting that “If we reported it, it’s a fact.”

In 2020, then-Fox-News anchor Lou Dobbs reported that the results of the election were “eerily reminiscent of what happened with Smartmatic software electronically changing votes in the 2013 presidential election in Venezuela.” Dobbs repeatedly raised questions and amplified conspiracy theories about Donald Trump’s loss, granting guests like Rudy Giuliani considerable airtime to spread misinformation about electoral security.

It’s generally uncontroversial to think that “fake news” is epistemically problematic (insofar as it spreads misinformation) and that it can have serious political consequences (when it deceives citizens and provokes them to act irrationally). Preventing these issues is complicated: any direct governmental regulation of journalists or news agencies, for example, threatens to run afoul of the First Amendment (a fact which has prompted some pundits to suggest rethinking what “free speech” should look like in an “age of disinformation”). To some, technology offers a potential solution as cataloging systems powered by artificial intelligence aim to automate fact-checking practices; to others, such hopes are ill-founded dreams that substitute imaginary technology for individuals’ personal responsibility to develop skills in media literacy.

But would any of these approaches have been able to prevent Lou Dobbs from spreading misinformation in either of the cases mentioned above? Even if a computer program would have tagged the 2005 leprosy story as “inaccurate,” users skeptical of that program itself could easily ignore its recommendations and continue to share the story. Even if some subset of users choose to think critically about Lou Dobbs’ 2020 election claims, those who don’t will continue to spread his conjectures. Forcibly removing Dobbs from the air might seem temporarily effective at stemming the flow of misinformation, but such a move — in addition to being plainly unconstitutional — would likely cause a counter-productive scandal that would only end up granting him even more attention.

Instead, rather than looking externally for ways to stem the tide of fake news and its problems, we might consider solutions internal to the journalistic profession: that is, if we consider journalism as a practice akin to medicine or law, with professional norms dictating how its practitioners ought to behave (even apart from any regulation from the government or society-at-large), then we can criticize “bad journalists” simply for being bad journalists. Questions of epistemic or political consequences of bad journalism are important, but subsequent to the first question focused on professional etiquette and practice.

This is hardly a controversial or innovative claim: although there is no single professional oath that journalists must swear (along the lines of those taken by physicians or lawyers), it is common for journalism schools and employers to promote codes of “journalistic ethics” describing standards for the profession. For example, the Code of Ethics for the Society of Professional Journalists is centered on the principles of accuracy, fairness, harm-minimization, independence, and accountability; the Journalism Code of Practice published by the Fourth Estate (a non-profit journalism watchdog group) is founded on the following three pillars:

  1. reporting the truth,
  2. ensuring transparency, and
  3. serving the community.

So, consider Dobbs’ actions in light of those three points: insofar as his 2005 leprosy story was false, it violates pillar one; because his 2020 election story (repeatedly) sowed dissension among the American public, it fails to abide by pillar three (notably, because it was filled with misinformation, as poignantly demonstrated by the defamation lawsuit Dobbs is currently facing). Even before we consider the socio-epistemic or political consequences of Dobbs’ reporting, these considerations allow us to criticize him simply as a reporter who failed to live up to the standards of his profession.

Philosophically, such an approach highlights the difference between accounts aimed at cultivating a virtuous disposition and those that take more calculative approaches to moral theorizing (like consequentialism or deontology). Whereas the latter are concerned with a person’s actions (insofar as those actions produce consequences or align with the moral law), the former simply focuses on a person’s overall character. Rather than quibbling over whether or not a particular choice is good or bad (and then, perhaps, wondering how to police its expression or mitigate its effects), a virtue theorist will look to how a choice reflects on the holistic picture of an agent’s personality and identity to make ethical judgments about them as a person. Like the famous virtue theorist Aristotle said, “one swallow does not make a summer, nor does one day; and so too one day, or a short time, does not make a man blessed and happy.”

On this view, being “blessed and happy” as a journalist might seem difficult — that is to say, being a good journalist is not an easy thing to be. But Aristotle would likely point out that, whether we like the sound of it or not, this actually seems sensible: it is easy to try and accomplish many things, but actually living a life a virtue — actually being a good person — is a relatively rare feat (hence his voluminous writings on trying to make sense of what virtue is and how to cultivate it in our lives). Professionally speaking, this view underlines the gravity of the journalistic profession: just as being a doctor or a lawyer amounts to shouldering a significant responsibility (for preserving lives and justice, respectively), to become a reporter is to take on the burden of preserving the truth as it spreads throughout our communities. Failing in this responsibility is more significant than failing to perform some other jobs: it amounts to a form of malpractice with serious ethical ramifications, not only for those who depend on the practitioner, but for the practitioner themselves as well.

On Objectivity in Journalism

blurred image of crowd and streetlights

Over the past few years, a number of left-leaning journalists have publicly questioned the notion of objectivity as an ideal for journalists and journalistic practice. The discussions that ensued have generated a lot of heat, but for the most part not too much light. That’s why I was delighted by the latest episode of Noah Feldman’s podcast, Deep Background, which featured a lengthy interview with journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, who is perhaps best known as the creator of The New York Times’s The 1619 Project. In that interview, Hannah-Jones and Feldman develop a nuanced account of the place of objectivity in journalism. I will discuss this account in due course. Before I do, I would like to unpack the multiple meanings of “objectivity” as it is used to describe journalists and their art.

The word “objectivity” is normally applied to two things: persons and facts or truths. An objective person is one who has three attributes: neutrality, even-handedness, and disinterestedness. A neutral person has no prior or preconceived views about a particular subject; an even-handed person is disposed to give due weight to both sides in a factual dispute; and a disinterested person has no strong interests in one side or the other being the correct one. Thus, objectivity as an attribute of persons involves (the lack of) both beliefs and desires. It is in the name of promoting the appearance of this kind of objectivity that some journalists think it is improper for them to engage in political activity, or even to vote.

When applied to facts or truths, as in the oft-repeated phrase “objective truth,” the word is generally taken to mean something about either empirical verifiability or “mind-independence.” Take empirical verifiability first. In this sense, “objective” truths are truths that can be directly verified by the senses, and so are part of a public world which we share with other sentient creatures. In this sense, “objective” truths contrast with both truths about our mental states, such as that I like the taste of chocolate ice cream, and “metaphysical” truths, such as that God is all-powerful. Mind-independence is a slippery concept, but the basic idea is that mind-independent truths are truths which don’t depend on anyone’s beliefs about what is true. That it is raining in Durham, North Carolina would be true even if everyone believed it false. In this sense, “objective” truths contrast with conventional truths, such as truths about grammar rules, since such rules depend for their very existence on the attitudes, and in particular the beliefs, of writers and speakers. In this sense, however, “objective” truths include both metaphysical truths and truths about mental states. To see the latter point, consider that the fact that I like chocolate ice cream would be true even if no one, including I myself, believed it to be true. Thus, truths about personal taste can count as subjective in one sense, but objective in another.

With some exceptions I will discuss shortly, criticisms of objectivity rarely cast doubt on the existence of objective truths. Instead, they target the ideal of the journalist as a neutral, even-handed, and disinterested observer. The criticisms are two-fold: first, that adopting the objective stance is impossible, since all journalists use their prior beliefs and interests to inform their decisions about what facts to include or highlight in a story, and if they have the discretion, even what stories to write. Second, since a perfectly objective stance is impossible, trying to adopt the stance constitutes a form of deception that causes people to invest journalists with a kind of epistemic authority they don’t and couldn’t possess. Better to be honest about the subjective (basically, the psychological) factors that play a role in journalistic practice than to deceive one’s readers.

In the interview with Feldman, Hannah-Jones echoed these criticisms of objectivity. She then distinguished between two activities every journalist engages in: fact-finding and interpretation. In the fact-finding phase, she said, journalists can and must practice “objectivity of method.” What she apparently means to pick out with this phrase are methods by which journalists can hope to access objective truth. Such methods might include interviewing multiple witnesses to an event or searching for documentary evidence or some other reliable corroboration of testimony; they might also include the institutional arrangements that newsrooms adopt — for example, using independent fact checkers. However, she and Feldman seemed to agree that interpretation — variously glossed as working out what facts “mean” or which are “important” — is a subjective process, inevitably informed by the journalist’s prior beliefs and desires.

Here are two observations about Hannah-Jones’s account. First, the methods used to access objective truth in the fact-finding stage tend to force journalists to at least act as if they are objective persons. For example, interviewing multiple witnesses and weighing the plausibility of all the testimony is the kind of thing an even-handed observer would do. Looking for corroborating evidence even when one wants a witness’s testimony to be true emulates disinterestedness. This doesn’t mean that one has to be objective in order to practice journalism well, but it does suggest a role for objectivity as a regulative ideal: when we want to know how to proceed in fact-finding, we ask how an objective person would proceed. And to the extent that we can emulate the objective person, to that extent is the epistemic authority of the journalist earned.

Second, it seems to me that “interpretation” involves trying to access objective truth, or doing something much like it. Feldman and Hannah-Jones used two examples to illustrate the kinds of truths that the process of interpretation is aimed at accessing: truths about people’s motives, or why they acted (as opposed to truths about their actions themselves, which are within the domain of fact-finding), and causal truths, like that such-and-such an event or process was the key factor in bringing about some state of affairs. But such truths are objective in at least one sense. Moreover, even truths about motives, while subjective in not belonging to the public world of the senses, can be indirectly verified using empirical methods very similar to those used to access directly empirically verifiable truths. These are methods lawyers use every day to prove or disprove that a defendant satisfied the mens rea element of a crime. Since interpretation involves accessing objective truths or using empirical methods to access subjective ones, and since the methods of accessing objective truths involve emulating an objective person, interpretation at least partly involves striving to be objective.

This can’t be all it involves, however: what’s important is not equivalent to what’s causally efficacious. Here is where Feldman and Hannah-Jones are undoubtedly correct that a journalist’s attitudes, and in particular her values, will inevitably shape how she interprets the facts. For example, a commitment to moral equality may cause a journalist to train their focus on the experience of marginalized groups, that value informing what the journalist takes to be important. A merely objective person would have no idea of what facts are important in this moral sense.

Thus, a journalist must and should approach her practice with a complicated set of attitudes: striving to be objective (to be like an objective person) about the facts, while at the same time inevitably making choices about which facts are important based at least in part on her values. This is part of what makes journalism a difficult thing to do well.

Can We Trust Anonymous Sources?

photograph of two silhouettes sitting down for an interview

Ben Smith’s recent article in The New York Times about Tucker Carlson’s cozy relationship with the media has caused quite a stir among media-watchers. It turns out that the man who calls the media the “Praetorian Guard for the ruling class” loves to anonymously dish to journalists about his right-wing contacts.

Missing from this discussion about Carlson’s role in the media ecosphere, however, is any exploration of the philosophically rich issue of anonymous sources. Is the practice of using such sources defensible, either from a moral or an epistemic point of view?

First, there is an issue of terminology. A truly anonymous source would be something like a phone tip, where the source remains unknown even to the journalist. In most cases, however, the identity of a source is known. These sources are not truly anonymous, but could be called “unnamed” or “confidential.” For reasons that will become apparent shortly, it is never appropriate for journalists to publish information from truly anonymous sources unless the information is capable of being independently verified, in which case there is no need to use the anonymous source in the first place. When I talk about “anonymous” sources in this column, I am referring to confidential or unnamed sources.

The basic epistemic problem with confidential sources can be summed up as follows: we really can’t assess the truth of a person’s testimony without knowing who the person is. If a shabbily-dressed stranger shuffles up to you and tells you that JFK was the victim of a conspiracy, you’re likely to discount the testimony quite a bit. On the other hand, if the head of the CIA came out and made the same claim, you’d be likely to update your beliefs about JFK’s assassination. In short, many details about a person’s identity are relevant to the reliability of their testimony. Thus, without access to these facts, it’s almost impossible to know whether the testimony is, indeed, true. But in the case of anonymous sources, the public lacks the necessary data to make these judgments. So, we are in a poor position to determine the veracity of the source’s claims. And if we can’t assess the reliability of the testimony, then we aren’t justified in relying upon it.

This epistemic trouble can often become a moral problem. Anonymous sourcing can encourage people to believe that a source’s claim is more reliable than it is, and in this way it may mislead. But surely, journalists have a moral obligation to take every precaution to guard against this. One example of the way anonymous sourcing can mislead is the anonymous essay published by The New York Times in September 2018 purporting to be written by a “senior official” within the Trump administration. This essay caused many people to believe that a cabinet-level official was helming a resistance to Trump from within the White House, but it turned out that the writer was Miles Taylor, former chief of staff to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. There is a case to be made that the Times misled the public in that case, causing them to hope in vain that some sort of resistance to Trump was taking place in the upper echelons of the executive branch.

How should we go about solving this problem? How is the public to distinguish between the straight scoop and unsubstantiated rumor? How can we mitigate the harm that comes with directing public attention at a shaky story without losing the ability to speak truth to power?

Reporters’ primary answer to the problem of anonymous sourcing is to point to the reliability not of the source, but of the news publication. Call this the “vouching” solution. The reporter claims that people should believe an anonymous source because the reporter’s institution does; the source’s trustworthiness is a function of the trustworthiness of the publication. But this is like saying that you can justifiably rely on the shabbily-dressed stranger’s claim that JFK was the victim of a conspiracy because an honorable friend reports it to you, and you trust your friend to vet the stranger’s claim before presenting it. The trouble with this solution is that if we’re dealing with a truly anonymous source, our “honorable friend” – the news publication – lacks the necessary information to properly vet, and thus adequately vouch for, the stranger and their claims.

That our faith in news outlets justifies the use of unnamed or confidential sources is just one reason why it is so important for the news media to cultivate public trust. Unfortunately, however, people’s confidence in the mainstream media is at an all-time low. According to one recent poll, a majority of Americans do not have trust in traditional media. For these Americans, the vouching solution fails to even get off the ground. Moreover, for these Americans, it would arguably be irrational for them to rely on the media’s anonymous sources, given their skepticism. If one does not trust one’s friend, it would be foolish to rely on the sources for which one’s friend vouches. By the same token, if one does not trust the media, it would be irrational to rely on the anonymous sources for which the media vouches.

What does journalistic vetting of anonymous sources involve? One thing it does not entail is securing independent verification of an anonymous source’s information. If this were possible, then it would be unnecessary to grant a source confidentiality at all — journalists could just settle for the independent evidence. Thus, journalistic vetting usually involves scrutinizing the motives and behavior of the source. Is the source eager or reluctant to share information? Is she in a position of power or vulnerability? What is her agenda?

Which brings us back to Carlson, who seems like a signally poor candidate for confidentiality. Smith’s article makes clear that Carlson likes to portray himself in a flattering light to reporters, and that he is eager to share information. He is also, of course, in a position of great power and influence, and surely uses his effusions strategically to further his own agenda. For these reasons, using Carlson as a confidential source seems to be an epistemically and, because of the potential for misleading the public, ethically dubious practice.

Abusing Public Faith: Brooks, Gladwell, and Journalistic Ethics

photograph of newspaper vending machines with businesses in background

Not long ago it was revealed that David Brooks, well-known opinion columnist for The New York Times, and Malcolm Gladwell, long-time New Yorker journalist, had received financial compensation for lending their journalistic credibility to different corporate ventures. Brooks used his column on multiple occasions to talk up a project to which he had significant financial ties — a fact he failed to disclose to his audience or his editors — while Gladwell continues to feature prominently in General Motors’s recent environmental vehicle campaign. To many, these celebrity endorsements may not seem like grave offenses; Brooks and Gladwell simply leveraged their notoriety to their financial advantage like anyone else might. On what grounds could one possibly object? Surely it would be unfair to demand that journalists be held to a higher standard than their peers and forgo all those financial incentives that so many other professions unabashedly enjoy.

It’s often suggested that over-policing possible conflicts of interest leads to absurd results. We don’t want to demand that journalists be so disinterested as to require their withdrawal from public life. We would be doing ourselves a terrible disservice to bar those often best-informed and civically-minded from public work. We shouldn’t bind the hands of those best-positioned to do the most good. Everyone should have a stake in the social projects of their communities and feel free to get their hands dirty.

Following this line of defense, Brooks and Gladwell’s endorsements have been characterized as nothing more than the benign by-product of a personal hobby. Gladwell speaks of his private passion for autos (a self-professed “MASSIVE car nut”), and Weave is described as Brooks’s pet project. Their advocacy, then, is simply an immediate reaction to their emotional investment with, connection to, and curiosity in those specific enterprises. There’s no reason to assume nefarious intent; these writers were simply overwhelmed with zeal and couldn’t wait to share the good news with the rest of us.

But there’s a significant distinction that separates championing a cause from promoting a product. Believing in something and rallying support behind it doesn’t require reducing one’s audience to corporate marks. Journalists shouldn’t sully their reputations by engaging in manipulation. Confronted by these allegations, Gladwell has claimed that if he’s guilty of being bought, then all of journalism has been similarly corrupted by relying on advertising dollars to sustain itself. There is, however, a marked difference between the banner ads adorning a periodical’s website and a journalist voicing support and throwing their weight behind a brand. When reporters start delivering the testimonials, the line meant to establish journalistic independence gets blurred and the waters get muddied. (Consider, for instance, this ad presented as an interview and even invoking the name of one of Gladwell’s popular investigative works.)

That said, criticism of Brooks and Gladwell’s behavior tends to draw our focus to the wrong thing. Failure to disclose isn’t the most damning sin Brooks committed, and his after-the-fact admissions can’t rectify the harm. Likewise, the potential for conflicts of interest doesn’t adequately capture the risk Gladwell’s paid endorsement poses. These actions, at bottom, violate the cardinal rule of journalism: Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth, and its first loyalty is to citizens.

It would be naive to think Gladwell’s corporate partners fail to appreciate what they are buying. Gladwell’s position is decidedly different from that of his commercial co-stars. He is not a mere entertainer; the value of his endorsement isn’t based on his ability to define what “cool” is. People give weight to Gladwell’s words because he promotes himself (and is promoted by institutions of journalism) as having the inside track on truth. Gladwell’s work weaves a complex story uniting social science and statistics — connections that are unintelligible to the rest of us. He divines the true way of the world and delivers these pronouncements to the masses. What Gladwell is selling, then, is a unique capacity for truth-telling. His trustworthiness depends on the public’s faith in the profession. His credibility and the credibility of the institutions he represents (just like Brooks’s) relies on transparency, accuracy, and unerring loyalty to the public. We believe him insofar as we believe journalism aims to benefit we, the people. To serve another master is to break this sacred bond. It is fidelity to this purpose – pursuing truth in the people’s name – that separates the devoted journalist from the faithless mercenary or fanatical partisan.

This is hardly the first time Gladwell has come under scrutiny for failing to respect the firewall we’ve erected to divide truth-telling journalists from marketing shills. But whether it’s speaking engagements, product placements, celebrity endorsements, or faux journalism, the rules of neutrality never change. The Society for Professional Journalists code of ethics is uncompromising in its guidelines about preserving journalistic independence: “Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.” The profession’s ethical code exists to defend the virtue of the entire field from those who would undercut it. For journalism to capably serve its necessary functions – as public forum, watchdog, and voice for the voiceless – it must be above suspicion.

It would be easy to dismiss these actions as isolated, one-off transgressions, but the consequences extend far beyond the responsible parties. These dealings undermine not only Brooks and Gladwell’s credibility, as well as that of The New York Times and The New Yorker, but also erode confidence in the profession as a whole. They threaten the finite, shared resource of public trust — a good that we are in greater need of now than ever.

In the Limelight: Ethics for Journalists as Public Figures

photograph of news camera recording press conference

Journalistic ethics are the evolving standards that dictate the responsibilities journalists have to the public. As members of the press, journalists play an important role in the accessibility of information, and unethical journalistic practices can have a detrimental impact on the knowledgeability of the population. Developing technology is a major factor in changes to journalism and the way journalists navigate ethical dilemmas. Both the field of journalism and its ethics have been revolutionized by the internet.

The increased access to social media and other public platforms of self-expression have expanded the role of journalists as public figures. The majority of journalistic ethical concerns focus on journalists’ actions in the scope of their work. As the idea of privacy changes, more people feel comfortable sharing their lives online and journalists’ actions outside of their work come further under scrutiny. Increasingly, questions of ethics in journalism include journalists’ non-professional lives. What responsibilities do journalists have as public-facing individuals?

As a student of journalism, I am all too aware that there is no common consensus on the issue. At the publication I write for, staff members are restricted from participating in protests for the duration of their employment. In a seminar class, a professional journalist discussed workplace moratoriums they’d encountered on publicly stating political leanings and one memorable debate about whether or not it was ethical for journalists to vote — especially in primaries, on the off-chance that their vote or party affiliation could become public. Each of these scenarios stems from a common fear that a journalist will become untrustworthy to their readership due to their actions outside of their work. With less than half the American public professing trust in the media, according to Gallup polls, journalists are facing intense pressure to prove themselves worthy of trust.

Journalists have a duty to be as unbiased as possible in their reporting — this is a well-established standard of journalism, promoted by groups like the Society for Professional Journalists (SPJ). How exactly they accomplish that is changing in the face of new technologies like social media. Should journalists avoid publicizing their personal actions and opinions and opt-out of any personal social media? Or should they restrict them entirely to avoid any risk of them becoming public? Where do we draw the lines?

The underlying assumption here is that combating biased reporting comes down to the personal responsibility of journalists to either minimize their own biases or conceal them. At least a part of this assumption is flawed. People are inherently biased; a person cannot be completely impartial. Anyone who attempts to pretend otherwise actually runs a greater risk of being swayed by these biases because they become blind to them. The ethics code of the SPJ advises journalists to “avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived. Disclose unavoidable conflicts.” Although this was initially written to be applied to journalists’ professional lives, I believe that that short second sentence is a piece of the solution. “Disclose unavoidable conflicts.” More effective than hiding biases is being clear about them. Journalists should be open about any connections or political leanings that intersect with their field. It truly provides the public with all the information and the opportunity to judge the issues for themselves.

I don’t mean to say that journalists should be required to make parts of their private lives public if they don’t intersect with their work. However, they should not be asked to hide them either. Although most arguments don’t explicitly suggest journalists hide their biases, they either suggest journalists avoid public action that could reveal a bias or avoid any connection that could result in a bias — an entirely unrealistic and harmful expectation. Expecting journalists to either pretend to be bias-free or to isolate themselves from the issues they cover as much as possible results in either dishonesty or “parachute journalism” — journalism in which reporters are thrust into situations they do not understand and don’t have the background to report on accurately. Fostering trust with readers and deserving that trust should not be accomplished by trying to turn people into something they simply cannot be, but by being honest about any potential biases and working to ensure the information is as accurate as possible regardless.

The divide between a so-called “public” or “professional” life and a “private” life is not always as clear as we might like, however. Whether they like it or not, journalists are at least semi-public figures, and many use social media to raise awareness for their work and the topics they cover, while also using social media in more traditional, personal ways. In these situations, it can become more difficult to draw a line between sharing personal thoughts and speaking as a professional.

In early 2020, New York Times columnist Ben Smith wrote a piece criticizing New Yorker writer Ronan Farrow for his journalism, including, in some cases the exact accuracy or editorializing of tweets Farrow had posted. Despite my impression that Smith’s column was in itself inaccurate, poorly researched and hypocritical, it raised important questions about the role of Twitter and other social media in reporting. A phrase I saw numerous times afterwards was “tweets are not journalism” — a criticism of the choice to place the same importance on and apply the same journalistic standards to Farrow’s Twitter account as his published work.

Social media makes it incredibly easy to share information, opinions, and ideas. It is far faster than many other traditional methods of publishing. It can, and has been, a powerful tool for journalists to make corrections and updates in a timely manner and to make those corrections more likely to be viewed by people who already read a story and might not check it again. If a journalist intends them to be, tweets can, in fact, be journalism.

Which brings us back to the issue of separating public from private. Labeling advocacy, commentary, and advertisement (and keeping them separated) is an essential part of ethical journalism. But which parts of these standards should be extrapolated to social media, and how? Many individuals will use separate accounts to make this distinction. Having a work account and personal account, typically with stricter privacy settings, is not uncommon. It does, however, prevent many of the algorithmic tricks people may use to make their work accessible, and accessibility is an important part of journalism. Separating personal and public accounts effectively divides an individual’s audience and prevents journalists from forming more personal connections to their audience in order to publicize their work. It also prevents the engagement benefits of more frequent posting that comes from using a single account. By being asked to abstain from a large part of what is now ordinary communication with the public, journalists are being asked to hinder their effectiveness.

Tagging systems within social media currently provide the best method for journalists to mark and categorize these differences, but there’s no “standard practice” amongst journalists on social media to help readers navigate these issues, and so long as debates about journalistic ethics outside of work focus on trying to restrict journalists from developing biases at all, it won’t become standard practice. Adapting to social media means shifting away from the idea that personal bias can be prevented by isolating individuals from the controversial issues, rather than helping readers and journalists understand, acknowledge, and deconstruct biases in media for themselves by promoting transparency and conversation.

Coronavirus Briefings: Virtue in Ignorance?

photograph of Trump answering questions at press briefing with Vice President Pence and Dr. Fauci one either side

Last week, KUOW, an NPR Member station in Seattle, said that it would no longer air the daily White House Coronavirus Task Force briefings live. On Wednesday, CNN and MSNBC both cut away from the president’s briefing when Trump kicked off the report by talking about a new counter-narcotics operation and progress on the border wall. CNN’s John King called Trump’s manipulation of Americans’ fear-driven attention “shameless” and “political.” But these networks’ actions have also been criticized for political bias in refusing to relay the news of the day. The decision to cease coverage of the president’s special briefings represents another chapter in the ongoing debate about how the media should cover Trump, and, more generally, where news agencies’ obligation to the public lies.

As of the time of this writing, over 200,000 people have signed a petition asking media outlets to stop covering the president’s coronavirus briefings live. Many of those individuals are no doubt motivated by party identification, but there are a number of moral reasons that are being offered as justification. Chief among these are appeals to decency and presidential decorum. Many have objected to the way that Trump has transformed (or perhaps weaponized) these fireside chats into political rallies. National emergency briefings aren’t the time for partisan politics, and they certainly aren’t the time for campaigning. These daily television spots are not legitimate policy briefings genuinely attempting to inform the public, but spectacles put on for political purposes. Flanked by muzzled science experts and a carousel of business leaders, Trump projects power while lacking substance. He bad-mouths reporters, fields planted questions, and is self-congratulatory when his guests aren’t too busy singing his praises. Critics argue that such displays are beneath the dignity of the office.

Second, there is a very real fear concerning the amount of misinformation that Trump has been circulating when talking off the cuff. That kind of ad libbing is deadly. While we are confronted by a disease that threatens to kill as many as 240,000 of us (just in the US), our current leader can’t be bothered to get his facts straight or fall in line with the recommendations of experts. At the very least, news outlets have an obligation not to give a platform to epistemic trespassers or snake oil salesmen. All the after-the-fact commentary and correction in the world can’t undo the damage being done on live TV as Trump undermines and contradicts public health experts.

On the other hand, it cannot be denied that everything the president does or says is, in a fundamental way, noteworthy. As Jack Shafer of Poltico writes,

“He speaks and economic markets move. He speaks and political markets shudder. Even when he holds his tongue—a rare occurrence for our current president, I’ll admit—the world shifts. Like it or not, his lies move markets, too.”

As such, we must consider whether these daily briefings represent important news items even if the content may be actively causing harm. Even the president’s most vocal critics can see the benefit of having a daily public record of the president’s words for the sake of transparency and accountability.

Further, these daily briefings also serve as a window into the brain and soul of our commander-and-chief. Rarely are our political leaders called upon day after day to give live updates on an ongoing emergency and to do so in a way that is suitable for consumption by the general public. What the president says, how he decides to frame it, and how he comports himself while doing it, all convey important information that transcends what fits on the page or can be communicated by an amended account. In these productions, believers hear hope and self-assurance; and critics hear braggadocio and incoherence. Even if it’s true that there is nothing more on offer than spin and self-promotion, aren’t even those performances worth relaying to the public?

The answer to that question may all come down to our pessimism regarding the public’s  competence. Those in favor of stopping coverage are inclined to play the role of guardian. As Shafer argues,

“[Their] greatest fear isn’t that Trump will lie or that Trump’s lies will somehow deceive them. What they worry about the most is that the average viewer will be sucked in by Trump’s lies. This paternalistic mindset holds that the same individual who can be trusted to vote in elections can’t be trusted on his own to listen to long, unbroken statements from the president. He must be guided and protected by volunteer censors.”

But we can’t have it both ways; a truly informed voter can’t be spoon-fed. It may be that those who are willing to tune in should decide for themselves the value of the information being shared.

Finding a middle ground in this disagreement on the media’s role in relaying the president’s message is not easy (nor is it a new problem). National Public Radio, for example, has made the decision to stop airing the briefings live. Instead it offers commentary and analysis, while including a link to the full briefing should its users care to see it. In defense of this move, Elizabeth Jensen, public editor for NPR, explains the newsroom’s mission to “serve the public and democracy,” writing,

“I take that to mean that it should provide facts to help listeners make decisions in their lives, not spin, particularly at a time when public health is at stake. That means having its reporters listen to the briefing and immediately share important updates in the newscasts and newsmagazines, without giving a platform for falsehoods, or speculative comments on as-yet-untested treatments or campaign rally-style rants.”

Perhaps this is a suitable compromise between the values of transparency and journalistic integrity. Or perhaps this again privileges opinion over facts and editorializing over reporting, or objectionably puts “knowers” in a position to protect the rest of us.

Other White House correspondents have proposed alternative solutions: “I don’t think trying to keep him from people because he lies is necessarily the right answer. Cover him aggressively, but let people see what he’s saying.” To that end, “networks could adapt, and carry them live, but fact-check in real time.” Whether such a strategy is feasible or effective remains to be seen.

Unfortunately, it may be that, regardless of the stance news outlets take, their consumers will always simply hear what they want to hear.

Fighting Fire with Smoke: On CPAC’s “Anti-Greta”

photograph of climate protest signs ("Not Cool")

This week it was announced that Naomi Seibt, dubbed the “Anti-Greta Thunberg,” will be speaking at the 2020 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). Seibt, 19, preaches to her ~50,000 YouTube followers the dangers of “climate alarmism,” and reveals the “despicably anti-human ideology” at the foundation of our climate change discourse and fearful prognostications. In contrast, Seibt says “I don’t want you to panic,” and assures her flock that “These days, climate change science isn’t a science at all.”

The Washington Post’s front-page profile of Seibt Monday following the announcement was met with criticism. “Why,” asks one reader, “would The Post print a profile of the efforts of a European teenager to dismiss, distort, distract and show dismay at the climate movement?” The paper’s choice to dedicate so much time and space to Seibt, they argue, threatens to normalize fringe beliefs, further derail the climate conversation, and promote obvious propaganda.

Propaganda? While the German YouTube influencer has claimed to be “without an agenda, without an ideology,” Seibt is currently under the employ of the Heartland Institute, a conservative “think tank” once dedicated to discrediting the science behind secondhand smoke, and now devoted to climate change denial. The Institute remains committed to protecting the interests of big business and seeks to reverse the “negative impacts of overreaching environmental regulations.”

It’s not hard to read the playbook and see the strategy at play. As Graham Brookie, director of the Digital Forensics Research Lab, explains,

“The tactic is intended to create an equivalency in spokespeople and message. In this case, it is a false equivalency between a message based in climate science that went viral organically and a message based in climate skepticism trying to catch up using paid promotion.”

This is not merely misinformation; it is not the product of unintentional error. This is a disinformation campaign intentionally and strategically designed to muddy the waters.

While these kinds of campaigns have proven incapable of moving the needle on public opinion when it comes to partisan politics–given the strength of our preexisting political beliefs–they can be extremely effective on swaying opinion on medical and scientific questions–given our lack of knowledge and weaker starting points. You won’t sway a Trump supporter to vote for Bernie, but you might be able to convince a parent who vaccinates to consider your anti-vaxx pamphlet. By continuing to promote voices like Seibt who say, “I don’t want to get people to stop believing in man-made climate change,” but also argue, “Are man-made CO2 emissions having that much impact on the climate? I think that’s ridiculous to believe,” entities like the Heartland Institute hope to erode public support and stifle legislative action. Given these modest goals, recruiting true believers would be great, but simply encouraging agnosticism will do just fine.

So with the terms of success so low and the stakes so high, should The Washington Post be condemned for playing into climate change deniers’ hands? Has the news organization acted against public interest by giving climate change denial a platform? Is it accountable for normalizing fringe beliefs?

Some argue that The Washington Post is in the wrong for lending credibility to the notion of “climate skeptics”–“a euphemism coined by climate-change deniers to disguise their rejection of massive volumes of peer-reviewed science as reasonable skepticism.” By adopting the language of Seibt and Heartland, the paper legitimizes an unsound and dishonest position. As such, the piece represents an obvious failure to uphold professional ethics. “At the very least, journalists have a responsibility to avoid amplifying bad faith nonsense spread by corporations looking to pollute the public discourse.”

Others see The Washington Post’s piece as an exploration of Seibt’s claim to expert testimony (a concept Ken Boyd wrote about Wednesday). It evaluates the reasons on offer for considering Seibt a credible and reliable source of information about how to respond to climate change (from her affiliation with Alternative for Germany (AfD) to the story of her recruitment and marketing by Heartland). It’s damning without needing to tell us so, and lets its subject speak for itself.

In the end, our diverging opinions on whether The Washington Post’s coverage represents uncritical acceptance or the relaying of fact free of judgment likely depends on our confidence in the reasoning abilities of The Post’s readership. It’s true that public attention is a finite resource. To pick from a crowded field any particular subject and direct readers to it rather than some other subject is to exercise an enormous amount of discretion. And there are clear cases of media outlets violating this trust. But the elevation of Seibt by CPAC makes The Post’s profile relevant, even if it’s for no other reason than to know thy enemy.

Why Isn’t Everybody Panicking? Scientific Reticence and the Duty to Scare People

photograph of gathering clouds

In 2017, journalist David Wallace-Wells published an article, The Uninhabitable Earth, which told a frightening tale of possible scenes from a bad to worst-case scenario outcome of the effects of global warming, ecological degradation, and widespread pollution – effects ranging from extreme weather, sea-level rise, and wildfire to mass migration, food scarcity, and social collapse. “It is, I promise, worse than you think.” writes Wallace-Wells, “no matter how well-informed you are.”

The knowledge of how bad it could be has been around for a while. James Hansen first presented the case for possible harms of global warming, caused by the burning of fossil fuels, to the US congress in 1988. Given that the scientific evidence has always been out there for anyone to see (even though media reporting has usually been lean), why is it worse than we think?

There is an epistemic failure occurring: people in the affluent, industrialized world do not, in general, appear to know how bad the climate crisis is, and do not, in general, appear to appreciate how much worse things will get if we continue to burn fossil fuels and pollute the atmosphere.

There are two distinct but related knowledge gaps opening up – between previous scientific prediction and what is actually happening, and between what scientists know is really happening and what the public thinks.

The first problem arises from factors about the nature of climate science itself, like in-exactitude of knowledge. We cannot be sure, for instance, what precise degree of warming will result from exactly what new concentration of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. The world appears to be warming faster, as ice melt and other such indicators are accelerating much faster that was predicted only a decade ago. A year ago, scientists concluded that the Earth’s oceans were warming 40 per cent faster than previously believed.

The second problem, that the public does not really know what scientists know, is not simply a problem of dissemination. The possible ramifications, from possible physical changes to the environment, to the social and humanitarian effects of these does not come straight off the data – it takes interpretation, thought, and imagination.

Doubtless, part of the knowledge difficulty, the epistemic deficit, is a form of cognitive dissonance. It is hard to imagine the scale of the problem. “Climate induced societal collapse is now inevitable in the near term” writes Professor of Sustainability Jem Bendell, “it may be too late to avert environmental catastrophe.” Part of the problem is that this does in fact sound like a crazy dystopian fiction.

This failure of the imagination is related to the problem of scientific reticence, which some have recently argued is having an adverse effect on policy action, and is even a dereliction of an ethical duty to seriously entertain possible (if extreme) scenarios. Scientific reticence arises both methodologically and stylistically. It takes the form of a tendency to understate the risks of global warming.

For instance, much of the scientific modelling, such as that used by the IPCC, has tended to largely underestimate the risks. IPCC climate modelling does not account for tipping points that result in non-linear, rapid, and irreversible chunks of damage, and trigger uncontrollable impacts. Melting sea ice and permafrost are some well-known tipping points. When sea ice melts, temperature rises are compounded by the reduction in reflective surfaces; and when permafrost thaws, large amounts of greenhouse gasses will be released and warming will leap.

Added to the difficulties of prediction and blind spots in the modelling capabilities is the generally conservative nature of science as a discipline. A great deal of the surrounding scientific literature to emerge over several decades has been conservative in its estimates of effects. That conservatism has meant that scientists are not conveying bad or worst-case scenarios to the public or policy makers.

When Wallace-Wells published his article, there was some pushback from climate scientists. Some felt that the science was not served by dramatizing the outcomes, and that really dire predictions might undermine scientific integrity with alarmism. There are some signs this attitude is beginning to change, but there are deeply embedded methodological, stylistic, and even ethical reasons for scientific caution.

Wallace-Wells says that he wrote The Uninhabitable Earth to address the fact that possible worse cases were not being talked about in scientific papers. (James Hansen is a notable exception to this, and he has written about the phenomenon of scientific reticence.)

Drawing attention to the dangers of global warming has at times caused cries of alarmism, and it has been suggested by Hansen that cautious or hesitant predictions are often perceived to carry more authority. The problem is that, now, it is looking like some of those worst-case scenarios are going to be much closer to the truth than the conservative underplay of catastrophe.

In any case it is becoming clear that science has not been effective at communicating the worst risks of climate change, therefore those who need to know these possibilities – the public and policy makers – have been ill-informed and ill-served.

In their paper What Lies Beneath, which explores the failures and blind spots of climate science’s understanding of the effects of global warming, Spratt and Dunlop write: “It is now becoming dangerously misleading, given the acceleration of climate impacts globally. What were lower-probability, higher-impact events are now becoming more likely.”

Scientific reticence has hindered communication to the public of the true dangers of global warming. This may in turn have directly (and indirectly) hindered action, which in turn has worsened the problem. Given that the findings of climate science research have existential implications for us, it could be argued that not entertaining the worst potential outcomes is a dereliction of moral duty as well as our duty to science.

There is a view that it is dangerous to frighten people too much, that the relevant information and worst risks worth considering are enough to scare the public into a sense of fatalism. Indeed, the news is bad, and at this critical time, resignation may be the last nail in the coffin (so to speak).

On ordinary scientific standards, incontrovertible confirmation will happen only when an effect has played out, or begun, and it will then be too late to abate it. The central ethical issue here is that ethics seems to be making an unusual demand on scientific communication, and on the translation of research data into conclusions needed by the public and policymakers – the demand to be a little more scary.

One could argue that man-made effects, which are likely to be harmful, should be treated differently from other types of observations and predictions, by virtue of what is at stake – and because caution could in this instance be a vice.

People aren’t scared enough about global warming. It is, as Wallace-Wells says, worse than people think – and though it may not be as bad as his picture, the trend so far points in that direction.

Having made that case, though, it must be acknowledged that scientific reticence might be peanuts next to the obfuscations of fossil fuel corporate rapaciousness, as a cause of the epistemic deficit our societies are in the (hopefully loosening) grip of.

The Harms of Reporting Political Insults

photograph of reporters' recording devices pushing for response from suited figure

This week I had the most amazing experience reading a news article. The article was discussing the preparations being made for the impeachment trial and I came across this sentence: “Trump tweeted right before and after Pelosi’s appearance, in both instances using derisive nicknames.” What an idea: to avoid repeating what is essentially name calling and to simply refer to what kind of statement was made. Afterall, what is the journalistic value of reporting that a politician called someone else by derisive nicknames and then repeating those nicknames? Does it make us more informed? Does it make national political debates any better? Perhaps not, and this means that the question about whether journalists should repeat such insults is an ethical one.

After the 2016 Presidential election there was much discussion about the issue of journalistic standards and the merits of covering a candidate like Donald Trump so much. Even before the election there were reports that Trump had essentially received over $2 billion dollars in free media simply because he was so consistently covered in the news cycle. Later there were those in the media, such as CNN President Jeff Zucker who acknowledged the mistake of airing campaign rallies in full as it essentially acted as free advertising. According to communication studies professor Brian L. Ott such free advertising did affect the electoral results. What this means is that media is not always merely a bystander covering election campaigns because that coverage can affect who wins or loses. This is relevant for several reasons when it comes to reporting and repeating political insults.

For starters, such insults can act like a form of fake news. Part of the problem with fake news is that the more it is repeated, even while being demonstrated to be false, the more people are likely to believe it. In fact, a study has demonstrated that even a single exposure to a piece of fake news can be enough to convince someone that its contents are true. Even when a report explicitly aims to repute some false claim, the claim itself is more likely to be remembered than the fact that it is false. Now, if we think about insults and nicknames as a piece of information, we are likely to make the same mistake. Every “Lyin’ Ted,” “Shifty Schiff,” or “Crooked Hillary” in some form offers information about that person. The more it is repeated the harder it is to repudiate claims related to it. No matter how many fact checks are published, “Crooked so-and-so,” remains crooked.

One may argue that if the media took measures to stop directly quoting such names and insults and simply noted the fact that an insult was made or is being popularized, then it is no longer performing its journalistic function of informing the public. It might be wrong to not report on direct quotes. However, if insults are more likely to stick in the minds of the public than the information repudiating the stories behind such insults, then the result may be a less informed public. As for the matter of reporting on quotes, this issue is already being discussed in terms of whether the media should repeat quotes that are factually incorrect. Darek Thompson argues that the media should put such quotes in “epistemic quarantine” by abstaining from direct reporting on the language being used in the name of securing the original purpose of journalism: to report the truth.

There is another objection to consider. By not covering insults and replacing them with general descriptions of the comments the media will no longer be reporting neutrally. However, the important thing to keep in mind is that politics is not just about information it is about branding. According to Amit Kumar, Somesh Dhamija, and Aruna Dhamija one outcome of political marketing is the political brand. If a politician is able to cultivate a personal brand, they can create a style and image which is distinct, and thus are able to target specific “consumer citizens” in a way such that politicians are able to establish an instantaneous reaction with the public.

For example, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has spent years cultivating a brand beginning with his boxing match with a Conservative Senator, with it establishing a sense of “toughness, strength, honour and courage.” One can only imagine that his recent beard growth, with its ability to project experience, is an attempt to change that brand. However, just as a company’s brand can be tarnished, so can a personal brand. When an insult like “Cooked Hillary” is used in a repeated and targeted way, it damages that brand in a way distinct from merely insulting someone. It acts less as an assertion of fact and more like a way to connect concepts on a subconscious level. Thus, when the press repeats insults, they are acting as a form of advertising to attack a political brand. In other words, repeated reporting of such insults is already non-neutral in its effects.

Perhaps reporting insults still serves a journalistic purpose, however it is difficult to see what purpose that is. Such insults are less about the merits of policy and are essentially ad hominem attacks. In fact, the reporting of such ad hominem attacks makes addressing empirical claims very difficult. According to a study, attacking an individual’s credibility may be just as effective as attacking the claims that the individual makes. For instance, attacking Clinton for being corrupt “could be just as effective as actual evidence of criminality, and no less influential.” In other words, once an ad hominem attack is made, the empirical facts of the case do not really matter. Dr. Elio Martino of Quillette notes, “If attacks on a person’s character are effective, and potentially irreversible even with the subsequent addition of facts, it becomes easy to discredit people wishing to tackle the difficult but important issues facing our society.”

So, reporting ad hominem attacks essentially does not aid in keeping the public informed. However, others have noted that reporting insults only serves to make politics “more trivial and stupid.” In a polling exercise in Australia, a group sought to get voter perceptions of political leaders and to form a word cloud of the responses. The responses mostly consisted of insults. As Terry Barnes notes, “While it may be a bit of fun—and it’s always fun for the rest of us to see political figures publicly humiliated—this tawdry exercise dumbed our politics down that little bit further, trivializing for the sake of titillation.” This isn’t an issue isolated to one politician or one nation; reporting on ad hominem attacks is trivial and it damages our ability to carry on political conversations. It is hard to see what journalistic purpose the reporting of any political insult could have.

All of this brings me back to the article I began with. It was so pleasant to see a pointless insult not being directly quoted, but simply noted. My hopes were dashed, however, when I scrolled further to not only find the tweet containing the insult embedded in the article, but to also find the article itself later mentioning the “derisive nickname” in question: “Crazy Nancy.” Would I have been missing out to know that a politician insulted another without knowing what the insult was? I don’t think so.

The Questionable Morality of Gonzo Journalism

photograph of dust cover of "Going Gonzo" book

Hunter S. Thompson, the godfather of gonzo journalism, had his ashes shot out of a cannon under the supervision of Johnny Depp. He ran for sheriff of Aspen, Colorado, campaigning on a platform that included replacing the paved roads with grass, outlawing buildings that obstructed the view of the nearby mountains, and renaming the town “Fat City” to detract greedy investors. He detailed his own copious illegal drug use and the demise of the American Dream in his magnum opus, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Thompson led, by almost any measure, a full and fascinating life. But while his lifestyle may be the envy of some, Thompson’s style of journalism ought not to be emulated.

Thompson defined gonzo journalism as “a style of ‘reporting’ based on William Faulkner’s idea that the best fiction is far more true than any kind of journalism,” a statement that falls pleasantly on the ears but does not actually make much sense. A genre of writing that is by definition untrue is more true than a style that seeks to uncover the truth? He later expounded upon his views on journalism in an interview with The Atlantic:

I don’t get any satisfaction out of the old traditional journalist’s view — ‘I just covered the story. I just gave it a balanced view.’ Objective journalism is one of the main reasons American politics has been allowed to be so corrupt for so long. You can’t be objective about Nixon. How can you be objective about Clinton?”

Some events, some people are so incontrovertibly one way, that they ought not be reported on without a judgment attached. To fail to issue a judgment on whatever the news may be would be playing a role in obscuring the truth. Or so Thompson might argue. (The fallacy of his argument is the belief that objectivity necessitates balance; it does not.)

This sentiment of subjectivity was reflected in a scathing obituary Thompson wrote for President Nixon, in which he never missed an opportunity to display his contempt for the 37th President of the United States. At one point, Thompson suggested that Nixon’s “body should have been burned in a trash bin.” He went on to describe journalism’s role in the rise of President Nixon. “Some people will say that words like scum and rotten are wrong for Objective Journalism — which is true, but they miss the point,” he wrote. “It was the built-in blind spots of the Objective rules and dogma that allowed Nixon to slither into the White House in the first place.”

It is doubtless that some journalists today hold similarly negative opinions of our current leaders. And while many may blame generous media attention and lax scrutiny early on for President Trump’s unexpected rise to political prominence, Thompson would likely blame the standard of objectivity. One could just imagine him lamenting the allergy of traditional journalists to take a stand, allowing for election of the 45th president. Perhaps, then, for some there is a compelling case to be made for why subjective journalism should be adopted when reporting on politics.

Major newspapers have begun to flirt with this style of journalism, sneakily editorializing coverage of major events and assigning political significance to them. Some journalists have successfully blurred the line between reporter and activist, becoming characters in the story they are covering. Project Veritas founder James O’Keefe, who has a proclivity for entering property under false pretenses and secretly videotaping people, is an obvious example of this transformation. He is explicit in his desire to reveal the purported moral corruption of the American political left. But CNN Chief White House correspondent Jim Acosta, who recently published a personal narrative about covering President Trump, better exemplifies this blur.

In one passage of his book Enemy of the People, Acosta describes his exchange with President Trump following the Charleston protests of 2017. “I think we have reached the point where we can state definitively, that Nazis are bad people,” he wrote. “When it’s a matter of right versus wrong, there are not two sides to the story.” You would be hard-pressed to find a sensible person who does not agree that Nazis are bad people; Acosta is right in characterizing them as such. Yet modern journalists should resist the temptation to go gonzo, and not because their opinions are unwarranted.

There are many matters in which what is right and what is wrong is unclear, disputed, and not incontrovertible. There are other matters still in which the dichotomy of “right versus wrong” is not applicable. Adopting this subjective style of reporting transforms those who report the news into moral arbiters of the news, a role that ideally should be reserved by the public. If a journalist takes a stand on one matter, what principle is keeping them from taking a stand on every matter?

Additionally, Thompson and Acosta refer to this style of reporting as if there would be consistency among the subjective journalists on what is right and wrong, which is obviously absurd. Lacing reporting with subjective judgments would open the doors for a “matter of right versus wrong” to be reported as right by some and wrong by others. This phenomenon is reflected in the increasingly polarized and partisan media of the U.S. Subjectivity descends into people living within their own reality with no common base of information to which to appeal (see Kenneth Boyd’s “The Rise of Political Echo Chambers”).

Objective journalism avoids this undesirable fracturing and benefits the public in many ways. One of the greatest limitations that the average member of public faces is the inability to consistently gather reliable information. Journalists can do that for them. It is their profession; they are trained to seek out verifiable accounts of events. Fortunately, it is within the ability of the average member of the public to think for themselves, to make judgments, to form opinions. Journalists do not have to do that for them. Objective journalism provides the public with facts to base their opinions, rather than opinions to base their facts. Everyone is working with the same set of facts, the same story, the same events.

This relationship is especially important in civic engagement. It equips the public with the tools and information required to make political decisions and hold the powerful accountable when needed. But journalism also can help the public make a variety of other decisions about their safety, health, finances,  and life in general, which is precisely why it should strive to be free from bias.

Gonzo has its place. Thompson’s accounts are riveting, entertaining, and illuminating. They convey a certain relatable emotionality that detached observation cannot. But if this were to become the predominant form of journalism – and there is evidence it is trending towards that in everything but name – judgments and opinions of news would be ready-made for the reader.

Distinguishing between a verifiable account of what happened and one’s personal assessment of the significance of what happened is important. It is for this reason that this piece will fall under the “Opinion” section of this publication rather than sitting among the news articles. My opinion of gonzo journalism is not fact. And society is better off not getting that confused.

MAGA Hats, Nathan Phillips, & Journalism in the Social Media Age

photo of ABC "eyewitness news" news van

Social media inundates its users with information at a rapid rate. The intersection of seemingly boundless and immediate digital information with the expectations of traditional journalism poses some compelling ethical concerns such as whether journalists should be responding to news as quickly as it comes to them. The frenzy that was aroused from a brief video clip of a MAGA hat-wearing high school student and a Native American activist serves as a case-study of these concerns. That frenzy calmed, in part, because how the incident was originally portrayed was not entirely accurate. It is worth pondering if the inaccuracy was caused by the rapidity of information innate to our digital age.

In its original article, The New York Times described the setting of the video as: “a throng of cheering and jeering high school boys, predominantly white and wearing “Make America Great Again” gear, surrounding a Native American elder.” The reporter continues, explaining that the high schoolers in question were being investigated by their school, Covington Catholic High School, and could be subject to punishment by expulsion.

An effort was made to portray this video as being emblematic of the political division in the country:

The encounter became the latest touchpoint for racial tensions in America, particularly under Mr. Trump, who has painted immigrants in broad strokes as rapists and drug dealers and recently mocked Senator Elizabeth Warren with a reference to Wounded Knee and Little Bighorn, sacred ground for Native Americans whose ancestors fought and died there.”

This characterization arguably extends beyond the realm of objective reporting and flirts with editorializing. Some may argue that the article is simply situating the incident within a larger national context, attaching it to a larger issue to make its significance more clear. While this article, relying on incomplete information for its content, was never retracted, a clarificatory article was published the following day after a longer video became available, disproving early characterizations.

The New York Times was not alone in its haste to interpret the social significance of the video. Nearly all the major news sources did the same. Perhaps that is the effect of an era dominated by social media in which there is a free-flowing abundance of information. The major traditional news sources must compete not simply with each other but also with this waterfall of events and happenings to remain relevant. They are forced to respond to news as it occurs because everyone is receiving the information at the same time.

There are two issues of note: firstly, should journalists be taking a stand on newsworthy incidents? In other words, should they offer their opinion on events and should they be the ones to grant import or assign value to such events? And secondly, should journalists be responding so rapidly to the information they receive? There may be public value to having a detached fourth estate in society – one that is not only independent from ideology and does not advance political interests, but also refrains from offering “hot takes” on events as they occur. And there may be long-term value in allowing things to settle before attempting to make sense of them. The answer to both of these questions lies in what ethical obligations journalists ought to adhere to.

The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics provides a comprehensive list of objectives that the ideal journalist should meet. Of course, the SPJ’s code of ethics is not the end-all, be-all of ethically appropriate behavior, but it does provide a useful touchstone by which we can judge news stories. The maxims most relevant to the encounter between Nick Sandmann and Nathan Phillips are included below:

Provide context. Take special care not to misrepresent or oversimplify in promoting, previewing or summarizing a story…

Support the open and civil exchange of views, even views they find repugnant...

Avoid stereotyping. Journalists should examine the ways their values and experiences may shape their reporting

Label advocacy and commentary...

Consider the long-term implications of the extended reach and permanence of publication. Provide updated and more complete information as appropriate…

According to the first maxim, The New York Times was well-within its ethical bounds to provide a larger context for the story. Although, the reporter (and numerous others) did so without complete information, which led to a misrepresentation of the incident.

The second, third, and fourth maxims relate to the question of subjectivity in journalism.

The misrepresentation of events by news outlets has greater significance today not only because political tensions are at their height, but also because of how quickly an incorrect portrayal can spread throughout the internet. Those two factors resulted in strong reactions. Nick Sandmann claims that he was subjected to cyberbullying and received death threats and is suing the The Washington Post for their alleged role in stoking the reaction. It would not be preposterous to suggest that the media’s portrayal was responsible for such a negative reaction to the incident.

Perhaps the journalists failed to follow the ethical dictums that inform objective journalism. Or maybe the age of social media has rendered those dictums irrelevant and in need of revision. Either way, a nation quickly formed an opinion based on an erroneous portrayal at a moment in its history when political friction sparks violence.

Journalistic Ethics, Sean Penn, and Rolling Stone

Rolling Stone is in hot water over Sean Penn’s interview with notorious Mexican drug lord Joaquín Guzmán Loera, also known as “El Chapo.” The interview, conducted in October and published last Saturday, has raised concerns over Penn and Rolling Stone’s approach to the interview, and whether they handled the situation in an ethical manner. Numerous people have accused the magazine and Penn of violating journalistic ethics with the interview, while they have insisted they did nothing wrong.

Continue reading “Journalistic Ethics, Sean Penn, and Rolling Stone”

Robo-Journalists: Can Robots Do The Job Of A Human Journalist?

Time is crucial when it comes to the news; every news agency wants to be the first to break a large story. To save time for journalists to focus on the big stories, template stories have been used for a basis for smaller stories. Journalists can type in the specific facts and then be on their way. But something further has been emerging in the field of journalism – robots.

For example, the L.A. Times uses an algorithm called QuakeBot to report each earthquake that happens, and the story appears online in three minutes, according to CNN. A company named Narrative Science has been marketing their software Quill, which works through data to create reports. In theory, this saves time for human journalists who can spend their time on analysis rather than wading through piles of data.

However, the software company believes that the software will soon develop to the point where it can provide analysis; the company’s chief scientists believe that writing software could even win the Pulitzer Prize within five years. While I find nothing wrong with saving journalists time in reporting earthquakes or crunching raw data, is passing off journalism to computer algorithms really right?

While the type of words can be programmed into computer software, can the code handle the sensitivity required in reporting stories that have affected many people, or know which facts might not be verified enough to report? If information is reported incorrectly – say, in the case of a libel lawsuit – is the computer algorithm responsible for that? You can’t prosecute software. Additionally, allowing software to write stories is also denying news consumers the human perspective on the issue. While stories written by software give us the raw facts, do we get the same level of analysis as a human can offer? Are the same potential solutions proposed? Can a computer write an op-ed?

In a time when robots and computers are replacing individuals in certain industries and threatening to eliminate the jobs in others (Google’s self-driving cars replacing taxi drivers, for example), one would think the job of a journalist would be relatively secure since society will always need news. Even if print media is in jeopardy, online media outlets still need content. Yet computer software can threaten the jobs of journalists worldwide.

While it seems unlikely to me that human journalists will have their jobs eliminated in the near future, the thought of our news media being run by computers is disconcerting. Journalists bring the news from a human perspective that I’m not sure can be programmed, in addition to acting in a surrogate role for the rest of the community who cannot be present for every breaking news event. While a computer can relay back facts, most people go to news for analysis and how it affects their lives rather than plain facts and details. Can computers truly adopt that role?