Media Ethics Debates from 2010-2019 - iMediaEthics

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Editor’s note: This list is not ranked, but an overview of major ethical issues and trends iMediaEthics observed and closely reported on in the past decade.

iMediaEthics takes a look back at the major media ethics debates and issues that cropped up during the past decade.

Phone Hacking Scandal:

The phone hacking scandal first grabbed iMediaEthics’ attention in Sept. 2010, when the New York Times‘ reported on alleged phone hacking at News of the World, the Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid that has since closed. Since then, we’ve devoted scores of stories to the allegations of phone hacking against UK publications, the lawsuits and payouts to victims, and the UK Leveson Inquiry into press standards and practices. The UK press regulator the Press Complaints Commission closed and a new regulator the Independent Press Standards Organisation and a competing regulator IMPRESS opened. At the end of the decade, hacking lawsuits are still being filed.

Reporting on Trump

Reporting on Pres. Donald Trump has presented a host of issues. From news outlets parroting false claims to wrong or bad tweets, there have been a plethora of problems. There have been hoaxes, lawsuits, retractions, firings, and more.

As we wrote in 2017:

“From how to report on the so-called alt-right and its role in the election, to the Huffington Post’s Donald Trump editor’s note, Trump tussling with media outlets that report critically on him, and fake quotes attributed to Donald Trump and Ivanka Trump, how to report on Trump has remained a major issue in the media.  Fox News’ Sean Hannity appeared in an ad for Trump, which Fox News didn’t know about beforehand. He faced no consequences beyond being told not to do it again. Melania Trump complained and is suing the Daily Mail and a Maryland blogger for claiming she was an escort in the 1990s. There was also a major shake-up at Breitbart News after then-reporter Michelle Fields accused then-Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski of grabbing and injuring her, with some staff including Fields quitting over Breitbart’s handling of the matter.”

And in 2015:

“There were accusations of staged or faked photos, memos on whether to call Trump racist (or not), the ending of Trump’s weekly appearances on Fox News’ Fox and Friends’ over his candidacy, an epic correction, and Trump losing his relationship with NBC (which airs Celebrity Apprentice, a reality television show that he hosted) over his comments on immigration. An Atlanta radio station fired a host for airing an old interview with Donald Trump and claiming it was new, and then there were problematic polls.

“Fake News”

With reporting on Trump and the past decade of political reporting, came the politicization of the term “fake news.” Because the term fake news may be deployed to describe reporting that may or may not be untrue, iMediaEthics typically identifies the specific type of error instead of employing a blanket term for all fabricated or inaccurate reportage.

Injunctions

Do injunctions — court orders preventing the media from publishing information — even work in the internet age? In the past decade, many injunctions and super-injunctions were filed to prevent news or secrets from getting out. In 2016, a celebrity couple got an injunction preventing the media in England and Wales from reporting allegations that one of the two cheated in a threesome. While the couple ultimately kept their names out of the press in England and Wales, they were referred to as “PJS” and “YMA” in court documents, and a Scottish newspaper was able to publish the alleged names without the injunction applying. In 2012, soccer player Ryan Giggs had an injunction against the media reporting on his affair, but the woman he had the affair with said she couldn’t afford to pay for the injunction so she was outed. He ultimately dropped his injunction, but the affair was an open secret at that point since a Scottish newspaper published a photo of him with a black bar across his eyes and a Parliament member named him using a legal loophole. This issues raised the question of whether injunctions still really work.

Unpublishing

In 2009, the Toronto Star’s public editor Kathy English’s report, “The Longtail of News: To Unpublish or not to unpublish,” explored the issue of unpublishing — or deleting online stories. Over the past decade, unpublishing has been an increasing issue and cause for debate in the media ethics world. Should newspapers unpublish college police blotters (or publish them to begin with)?

The European Union instituted the Right to Be Forgotten, allowing people to get links about them deindexed from search engines. In response, some news outlets complained and published lists of de-indexed stories, effectively undermining the unpublishing.

Readers have requested stories to be removed, and some news outlets have agreed in certain circumstances. Cleveland.com even created a system and process for handling such requests.

Cartoon ethics

At the beginning of the decade, the ethics of editorial cartoons was not on our radar, but halfway through the decade, it was unavoidable. Issues that news outlets faced included whether to publish a cartoon, if a cartoon crossed the ethical line, how to review cartoons before publication, and when to apologize for a cartoon’s poor taste. Editorial cartoons that news outlets apologized for included ones featuring anti-Semitic tropes, transphobia, racism and much more. And then there was Charlie Hebdo.

Charlie Hebdo

The 2015 attack on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo–in which 12 people were killed and 11 more wounded–was the murderous response to the magazine’s depiction of Mohammad. That mass murder prompted discussions from news outlets over whether to publish the magazine’s cartoons, and then whether news outlets made the right decision. Later on, Charlie Hebdo was criticized for its cartoon of Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian toddler refugee who died on a Turkish beach, and its cartoon of Hurricane Harvey and Texans. It was also sued for its cartoon of victims of the 2016 Italian earthquake that killed about 300 people.

UVA Rape Reporting

Rolling Stone‘s “A Rape on Campus” by Sabrina Rubin Erderly was published in 2014. Within weeks, the story about a student identified as “Jackie,” who said she was gang raped by fraternity members, was discredited. Rolling Stone admitted it didn’t contact the fraternity members accused of gang rape. The fraternity chapter and an associate dean from the university named in the story won libel lawsuits against Rolling Stone.

In April 2015, Columbia Graduate School of Journalism released its investigation and review of the story, prompting Rolling Stone to issue a formal apology and retraction.

Covering Mass Shootings and Terrorism

How to best and sensitively cover mass shootings and terrorism as breaking news was another topic that came up quite a bit in the past decade. The media made numerous errors in reporting on the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting, including misidentifying the shooter, falsely reporting that the shooter’s father died, and using the photos of the wrong person identified as the shooter. Conspiracy theories were spread by, among others, Alex Jones on his InfoWars website, prompting the families of the victims to sue. After the Parkland School shooting in Florida in 2018, similarly many errors slipped through as the news broke including the statistics on how many school shootings happened that year, and background information on the shooter.

News outlets debated whether to broadcast the 911 tapes from shootings or report on autopsies. Often in breaking news coverage, news outlets have misidentified the accused or interviewed fake victims or witnesses. In other shooting cases, news outlets discussed why they did or didn’t name victims or the accused and shared how they would handle their standards for reporting on shootings. Other shootings have prompted debates on whether to identify the shooter at all.

Similarly, news outlets have reported incorrect information about suspects accused of terrorism, admitted they didn’t give enough attention to terrorist attacks, and in at least one case, agreed to terms of reporting on a terrorist attack. As with mass shootings, there have been debates over whether to identify terrorists by name or photo, or publish their manifestos or propaganda. And, iMediaEthics and others have raised questions about whether the U.S. news treats foreign victims the same as Americans, pointing to graphic news photos showing foreign victims. Coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing was especially problematic with news outlets publishing graphic photos, inaccurate information, and conflicting claims.

Reporting on Rob Ford

Reporting on Rob Ford, the former mayor of Toronto who died in 2016, prompted numerous ethical debates. In 2013, a video showing Ford, then-mayor, smoking crack cocaine was shopped to news outlets, including the Toronto Star and Gawker, which has now shut down. Gawker crowd-funded more than $200,000 to buy the video, but then the news website could not track down the source of the video. The Toronto Star’s public editor criticized the newspaper for going “overboard” in describing the people who were trying to sell the video, but defended the newspaper for using anonymous sources to report on Ford’s “alcohol abuse.” The Globe and Mail paid $10,000 to a “self-professed drug dealer” to buy photographs of Ford with what appeared to be a crack pipe, defending the payment as in the public interest. The Toronto Star paid $5,000 for a video of Ford.

Ford had to apologize in late 2013 for saying then-Toronto Star reporter Daniel Dale was “taking pictures of little kids” from his backyard after Dale sent libel notices. Dale, now with CNN, was upset about Ford’s implications, when he had been on public land reporting a story on Ford. The Globe and Mail unpublished a photo of Ford’s children trick-or-treating, citing privacy.

WikiLeaks

WikiLeaks wasn’t a household name when we entered 2010, but by the end of that year, it surely was. In 2010, the site published what it called the Afghan War Diaries and Iraq War Diaries. There were debates over whether WikiLeaks is journalism, staffers left in high-profile ways, and news outlets partnered with WikiLeaks. WikiLeaks battled to keep its website online at times and lost access to PayPal and other online banking organizations. Chelsea Manning, then Bradley Manning, took “full responsibility” as the source for the Afghan and Iraq war documents, and later had her sentence commuted. Julian Assange holed up in the Ecuadorean embassy in London to avoid being extradited to Sweden to respond to sexual assault allegations, was later kicked out and arrested in April 2019, and was charged in May 2019 under the U.S. Espionage Act.

Online Comments

Online comments sections dropped like flies in the past decade. MSN, Crain’s Chicago Business, Al Jazeera, NPR, the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, and the Oregonian were among many to nix the online comments section altogether, citing abusive, off-topic comments, a lack of resources to moderate comments, and the rise of social media, which has partly supplanted the necessity of comments sections, they said. In other cases, news outlets overhauled their comments section programs or suspended comments on certain types of stories.

Plagiarism, Fabrication & Source Issues

In one bit of dare we say good news, the latter half of the decade saw an apparent decrease in plagiarism and fabrication cases. Some noteworthy cases from the past decade:

  • Former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson was accused of plagiarism in her 2019 book
  • IGN fired an editor for video game plagiarism
  • The News & Observer in North Carolina found plagiarism in 14 cases
  • a reporter for the Daily Beast resigned after being busted for at least six plagiarized articles
  • a California newspaper found it had a “plagiarism-infested sports section”
  • New York public radio found 10 articles with plagiarism
  • A Texas student newspaper found fake quotes in 20 articles,
  • Der Spiegel said one of its reporter faked interviews and quotes in 14 articles
  • The Houston Chronicle said it couldn’t find 122 sources in a reporter’s work
  • The Guardian unpublished 13 stories after being unable to verify sources
  • A Deseret News intern plagiarized in 40 of 76 articles
  • The Washington Post had six plagiarism or attribution cases within two years
  • The Globe and Mail disciplined columnist Margaret Wente over attribution issues
  • Jonah Lehrer was fired by the New Yorker after self-plagiarism, lifted quotes, and fabrication
  • Connecticut’s New Canaan News fired reporter Paresh Jha for fabrication
  • Johann Hari was suspended after accusations of lifting quotes and “embellishing” quotes
  • Harper’s issued its first ever retraction in 2015 over Stephen Glass’s fabrication 17 years earlier
  • Brian Williams lost his NBC Nightly News gig after NBC News found he exaggerated his war reporting.
  • iMediaEthics investigated Kevin Deutsch, a New York crime reporter, and was unable to verify more than a dozen of his sources. The New York Times removed references to two of his sources after it couldn’t track them down, and after reviews by news outlets, Newsday added editor’s notes stating it couldn’t find 109 sources from 77 of his articles.

Public Editors

Many U.S. news outlets ended their public editor positions this decade. The New York Times, ESPN, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and Kansas City Star all ended their ombudsman or public editor position in the 2010s. And, in 2014, the last news council in the U.S., the Washington News Council, shut down. Ombudsman positions have, however, been added at universities in the U.S. and outside of North America.

Social Media

Ah, yes, social media. In the past ten years, social media has become an unavoidable part of life and journalism, but it hasn’t all been good. News outlets and reporters continue to fall for fake, wrong, or satirical social media posts, and the need to verify before sharing is always present. It seems like weekly, reporters have gotten fired, suspended or criticized over bad tweets.

Bad Commentary

Throughout the decade, we’ve seen numerous news outlets or journalists apologize, retract, or amend their own commentary because it was offensive. There are countless cases from the past decade, too many to summarize, but the moral of the story: everyone needs an editor, maybe two.

Entertainment Surveys versus Polling

There is real, scientific polling out there, surveying the public’s opinion using recognized methodology. And, there are fun, entertainment surveys, that aren’t scientifically conducted. Many times this past decade, those silly surveys that don’t actually represent the public in any scientific or real way were passed off by news outlets as real polling. Or, polling methods failed.

In 2014, the Los Angeles Times and a ton of other news sites reported on a survey claiming 1 in 10 Americans think HTML is an STD (sexually transmitted disease). But, the LA Times told us it never saw the survey and its report was based on a press release from a UK coupon website. And in 2015, many news outlets reported on a survey claiming 33% of vegetarians eat meat when they are drunk; however, the first news outlet reporting the claims was a trade publication for pubs, which basically copied and pasted a press release from a coupon website. The coupon website didn’t respond to inquiries and didn’t have information on the alleged survey on its website. Two years later, NPR fell for a marketing stunt survey claiming 7% of Americans think chocolate milk comes from brown cows.

In 2017, the UK Express reported that 98% wanted the UK to leave the European Union immediately, but it wasn’t a real survey; it ran a poll in the paper and had readers call in if they wanted to answer and readers had to pay to vote. In 2019, USA Today published, and then unpublished, a story based on a survey about how often people say they change their underwear because the survey, it turned out, had been conducted by an underwear company.

Covering ISIS

Reporting on ISIS challenged news outlets this decade as well. For starters, many news outlets debated just how to refer to ISIS –or ISIL, IS, the Islamic State or Daesh, depending on the news outlet. News outlets were on the fence about publishing photos or video from ISIS executions. The UK broadcast regulator OfCom ruled that Hindi TV news channel Aaj Tak shouldn’t have shown images of ISIS beheadings and torture, and that Afghan TV news station shouldn’t have shown an ISIS terrorist’s video pledging loyalty to ISIS. The Guardian issued guidance for reporting on ISIS videos, and News.com.au in Australia unpublished its article quoting from ISIS’s terror guide. Fox News decided to air a graphic image from an ISIS video, and published a 22-minute ISIS video.

Entertainment news site Deadline fell for a satire story claiming Sean Penn was going to meet with ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and when al-Baghdadi was killed in 2019, the Washington Post upset readers with a headline calling him an “austere religious scholar.” In 2019, the BBC apologized after claiming a Muslim gesture was an ISIS “salute,” and the New York Times reported on documents purporting to be ISIS receipts that may not be authentic. In 2015, news outlets used a mistranslation of an ISIS document and wrongly reported that ISIS banned pigeon breeding because of their genitals. And, in the following year, the UK Sun and Times were slammed for their “misleading” report that 1 in 5 British Muslims sympathize with ISIS.

The Death of Gawker

In 2016, Gawker.com closed. Plenty of sites close each year, but the fact that this one was due to an invasion of privacy lawsuit that bankrupted it makes it important. Gawker was done for because back in 2012, it published a sex tape of professional wrestler Hulk Hogan, aka Terry Bollea. Hogan won his lawsuit against Gawker and the site was ordered to pay $140 million. But, in an unexpected twist, Paypal co-founder Peter Thiel was revealed to have financially backed Hogan’s lawsuit because Gawker outed Thiel as gay in 2007. Univision ended up buying Gawker Media’s websites for $135 million so Gawker could pay the lawsuit verdict, but Gawker itself had to close. (Univision ended up selling the re-named Gizmodo Media Group last year.)

Reporting on Suicide

Following ethical guidelines for reporting on suicide is important because of the contagion factor — too much information in a news story could trigger another suicide. iMediaEthics focused many news stories over the past decade on this important topic, highlighting cases where the media got it wrong and right, and flagging guidance and best practices. The death of actor Robin Williams in 2014 spurred numerous ethical lapses as news outlets floundered in following best practices.


For more breakdowns by year, check out some of our annual media ethics roundups.

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Media Ethics Debates from 2010-2019

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