On The Media is a multiple award-winning host of a website representing weekly, one-hour National Public Radio (NPR) podcasts devoted to media criticism and analysis. The podcasts aim to maintain the hallmarks of civility and fairness that are trusted in public radio, investigating with frankness and transparency while covering sticky issues related to media (On The Media, 2015). Television, search engines, and the public using social media raise questions about ethics in media as found in these three podcasts (about 6 minutes each, links available in the References below):
- You Decide, We Report: Who decides what should be reported – journalists, search engines, or the public, especially as impacted by social media?
- Sue You: Can anonymous blogging be legally used for defamation of a business or another person’s character?
- People in Holes: Should there be excessive, around the clock coverage of people stuck underground when we don’t provide the same coverage for other issues?
Copy editors are renowned for writing punchy, eye-catching headlines, which works great in print, but wreaks havoc with search engines on the internet. Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is the process of getting traffic from the “free,” “organic,” “editorial” or “natural” search results on search engines (Search Engine Land, 2015). This is the popularity-game process that determines the order of the websites that display when you search for a topic. The more popular a website is the higher its ranking, and everyone’s goal is to be at the top or at least the first page.
At the time of the podcast, Brent Payne was the Director of SEO for Tribune Media, a subsidiary charged with managing the digital and interactive operations of 8 major daily newspapers (Chicago Tribune, LA Times, etc.) and 26 broadcast websites, along with multiple mobile websites and device applications that attract more than 15.5 million unique visitors per month (Tribune Interactive, 2015). Brent’s job was to ensure that a Tribune article lands on the front page of Google’s search results. When asked if Google will lead newspapers to cover specific stories, he said yes, but insists that the SEO results the Tribune receives do not affect their journalistic integrity (On The Media, 2015).
The podcast discussion went on to ponder the responsibility of who is to say what is or isn’t important to the public audience – the popularity contest or professional journalistic judgment? I personally feel that the public should drive what they want to see more of and that journalists should do their part to ensure what we read and view is of the highest ethical standards. With the advent of multiple social media avenues, anyone can become a writer, reporter or critic. We need SEO to bring the stories to light that are important to us all and not just a few, but we need the stories to be crafted with authors and journalists conscious of media ethics, avoidance of bias, and with truthfulness and integrity in reporting.
Talk about a cat fight! In 2009, Rosemary Port posted an anonymous blog slurring fashion model, Liskula Cohen, with names such as skank, hag, ho, and so on. Cohen filed a $3 million lawsuit for “defamation in the form of libel and intentional emotional distress,” (Amira, 2009), “concerning her appearance, hygiene, and sexual conduct,” against the then-anonymous blogger whose Blogspot site called “Skanks in NYC” only featured five post, all with photographs and comments devoted to bad-mouthing Cohen. A New York court sided in favor of Cohen and ordered Google to release Port’s identity (Disgrasian, 2011).
Well, isn’t this interesting…they know each other! Sources reveal that Port became incensed after Cohen talked some trash about her to Port’s boyfriend (Amira, 2009). Port retaliated by filing a $15 million lawsuit against Google for invading her privacy (Disgrasian, 2011), but the podcast clarified that Google’s Terms of Agreement state that it will protect privacy, but will share personal information if required by legal action.
This podcast also discussed the precedent set by the court system in the State of New York that centered on defining urban slang such as “skank” as words of defamation. Although it is a term of defamation in New York, other state courts do not uphold using urban slang as a legal issue. So if you want to write or say something about someone according to what you perceive as your 1st Amendment right of free speech, bear in mind that beginning in 1964 with the landmark decision in New York Times v. Sullivan, the US Supreme Court has balanced individual interests in reputation with the interests of free speech (US Legal, 2015).
People in Holes
This podcast aired in 2010, two days after 33 miners in Chile were rescued after being trapped underground for 69 days, the longest underground entrapment of survivors in history. Although news coverage of the crisis had dominated every form of media during those months, there was around the clock coverage of the dramatic rescue mission that broadcast the final rescue for 22½ hours as a worldwide audience monitored every development (Thadani, 2015). The 33, a new movie releasing this year on November 13th, marks the five-year anniversary of the accident, and stars Antonio Banderas recounting their harrowing ordeal.
On October 17, 1987, 18-month old, Jessica McClure was pulled from an 8-inch hole in an abandoned well in Midland, Texas where she’d been trapped for 58 hours (nearly 2 ½ days). The toddler was in the back yard with other children when her teenage mother ran into the house to answer the phone. During those brief moments, the toddler fell into the well hole that was previously covered by a rock. She was wedged so tightly that she could not move, but sang and cried and talked with her parents and rescuers as they struggled to devise a way to reach her without her falling further into the well (she was 22 feet down) or crushing her limbs and body in the removal process.
While this was happening, my parents, sister and extended family lived in Midland and about this same time, my newly expecting family had been discussing baby names. I was about to tell my mom that we’d picked out a name and she said, “Well, whatever you do, don’t name her Jessica. I feel for this little girl here, but we are so sick of hearing about it. It’s all we can get on the TV down here.” I never told my mom that Jessica was the name we’d picked for our baby girl. (We named her Erika instead.)
As described in the podcast, the event of “Baby Jessica” being trapped in a hole was a significant turn in media presentation. CBS was on the scene moments after Jessica was trapped and the “Big Three” (CBS, NBC and ABC) all covered the story as usual, but the 7-year old news broadcasting station, CNN, took off and ran the story 24/7 with live coverage. The public was captivated, having never seen a traumatic event unfolding before their eyes from beginning to end. This action by CNN launched them into the stratosphere and earned them a reputation for being a reliable source for up-to-the-minute news. Such sensational coverage was provided internationally for another event, not for a person in a hole, but for the trial of the famous sports celebrity, O.J. Simpson, accused of murdering his wife and her friend.
Although O.J was acquitted of their murders, the public saw so much of the events surrounding it that it’s amazing they could even find a jury to try him. O.J .was again arrested years later and now serves the extensive prison time so many of us voyeurs feel he unjustifiably escaped from.
As for Baby Jessica, on her 25th birthday in 2011, she was granted access to her trust fund of up to $800,000 in donations from thousands of sympathetic strangers given for her rescue and care. She is a contented mother of two, living less than two miles from that hole (filled immediately after her rescue). She has no memory of the ordeal or the 15 operations she endured thereafter. She has since developed rheumatoid arthritis, the scar is still visible where her forehead and nose rubbed against the wall of the well and if she walks barefoot, you can see the toe she lost to gangrene because one of her legs was pinned above her head in the 8-inch well shaft. It wasn’t until Jessica was five and she happened to see a television documentary about a baby girl in a well that the curious little girl asked who that was and her parents honestly said that it was her (Blaney, 2011).
It’s not all about ethics in media, it’s about using common sense, having good morals and being truthful, respecting personal privacy and not being vengeful, and most of all, doing what we can to make the world a better place. As the wise once said in a good book, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (BibleGateway, 2015, Luke 6:31). Remember, it’s the Golden Rule!
Amira, D. (2009, August 21). The Two Sides of the Accused Model-Skank Liskula Cohen. New York Magazine. Retrieved from http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2009/08/the_two_sides_of_accused_model.html
BibleGateway. (2015). Luke 6:31. Retrieved November 5, 2015, from https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke+6:31
Blaney, B. (2011, March 25). Baby Jessica turns 25, gains access to trust fund. Retrieved November 5, 2015, from http://www.today.com/id/42274115/ns/today-today_news/t/baby-jessica-turns-gains-access-trust-fund/
Disgraian. (2011, May 25). If You’re Gonna Call Someone A Skank, Be Sure to Say Who’s Calling | Huff Post Tech. Retrieved November 5, 2015, from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/disgrasian/if-youre-gonna-call-someo_b_271734.html
Huff Post Media. (2011, May 25). Rosemary Port, Outed “Skanks” Blogger Who Trashed Model, Angry At Google. Retrieved November 5, 2015, from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/08/24/rosemary-port-outed-skank_n_266852.html
On The Media. (2009, October 9). You Decide, We Report [Audio podcast]. Retrieved from http://www.onthemedia.org/story/132524-you-decide-we-report/
On The Media. (2009, September 4). Sue You [Audio podcast]. Retrieved from http://www.onthemedia.org/story/132484-sue-you/
On The Media. (2010, October 15). People in Holes [Audio podcast]. Retrieved from http://www.onthemedia.org/story/132946-people-in-holes/
Search Engine Land. (2015). What Is SEO / Search Engine Optimization?. Retrieved November 5, 2015, from http://searchengineland.com/guide/what-is-seo
Thadani, T. (2015, October 13). Relive the moments: 33 Chilean miners rescued alive 5 years ago. Retrieved November 5, 2015, from http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2015/10/13/chilean-miners-resuce/73838496/
Tribune Interactive. (2015). Tribune Interactive | LinkedIn. Retrieved November 5, 2015, from https://www.linkedin.com/company/tribune-interactive
US Legal. (2015). Libel and Slander. Retrieved November 5, 2015, from http://libelandslander.uslegal.com/