iMediaEthics' Top Media Ethics Issues of 2010

iMediaEthics publishes international media ethics news stories and investigations into journalism ethics lapses.


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The issue of copyright infringement and protection was a hot media ethics issue this year. (Credit: Flickr, "Mikeblogs")

Here are iMediaEthics’ picks for the top issues in journalism and media ethics during 2010.

1. Copyright Infringement:  The protection of copyrighted writing and images became a hot topic in the media world this year.

Righthaven, a copyright protection firm, has reportedly pursued close to 200 lawsuits on behalf of the Denver Post and the Las Vegas Review-Journal.  Notably, Righthaven has filed lawsuits without asking website operators to remove the content in question — a nicety generally extended to offenders in the online world.  In addition, Righthaven’s definition of fair use and copyright infringement has been called into question.

Also, in at least two high-profile cases, the online world has rallied around bloggers claiming their work was plagiarized by bigger media outlets. With Cooks Source, blogger Monica Gaudio alleged that the New England cooking magazine (now defunct as a result of the controversy) violated her copyright and lifted a recipe she wrote off a blog for publication in the magazine.  Also this fall, two bloggers alleged that Jay Leno’s Tonight Show lifted their video montage of Taylor Swift reaction shots — and despite being promised attribution in advance, the bloggers were not credited when the video aired.

2. Twitter’s Continued Effect on Media:  In November, libel lawsuits were filed in British courts over comments posted on Twitter (see here).

CNN was reportedly the victim of a Twitter hoax after a Twitterer posted a fake “re-tweet” claiming that Morgan Freeman had died — and attributing the news to CNN. A personality from Irish media company RTE started her hoax that a politician was resigning via Twitter. Meanwhile, musician Nicki Minaj debunked a fake story via Twitter after she read that someone had erroneously claimed she was giving concerts. A doctored photo of Ian McKellen circulated via Twitter, only to end up being picked up by news outlets like the Advocate.  Time was hoaxed and republished a photo of a 1976 tornado found on Twitter as if it were a fall 2010 tornado. And the Daily Mail was busted for publishing a story based on the tweets of a parody account for Apple chief Steve Jobs.

3. Public Comments Leading to Trouble for Journalists:  2010 saw numerous high-profile firings, suspensions and controversies as a result of comments made by journalists in public.  After veteran journalist Helen Thomas again made controversial comments about people of the Jewish faith, her alma mater, Wayne State University, ended an award named for her.

Juan Williams was fired from his post as an NPR analyst after he made controversial comments regarding people of the Muslim faith.  But, in the wake of his firing, Fox, his other employer, quickly awarded Williams with a hefty contract.

Rick Sanchez was fired from CNN in October after he called comedian Jon Stewart a bigot in a satellite radio show.  Sanchez also questioned — sarcastically — whether being Jewish is a minority.

Four reporters for an Arkansas TV station were fired after their “profanity-laden spoof of broadcast news” in self-made videos was posted on YouTube.  Their station claimed the videos “degrade and discredit our community and our employees.”  In a separate incident, an Arkansas radio reporter was fired for wearing a rival team’s cap to a press conference.

Two Alaska reporters were fired after they unintentionally recorded themselves discussing the possibility of finding child molesters at a political rally.  The recording was made on the voice mail machine of the candidate’s spokesperson.

Octavia Nasr was fired this summer for her tweet expressing “respect” for a recently deceased Hezbollah leader.

Dave Weigel was the first to publicly take a hit for the JournoList e-mail leaks.  Weigel resigned from The Washington Post after e-mails he wrote in the private listserv JournoList were leaked and published to the Daily Caller and Media Bistro.

4. Conflicts of Interest:  In early December, three Jakarta journalists lost their jobs after it was determined they bought stocks of a company during its initial public offering.  In October, a Reuters journalist resigned after it was revealed he owned stocks in companies about which he wrote.  In May, the Society of Professional Journalists expressed their “dismay” over New Jersey Gannett newspapers’ hiring a New Jersey Devils employee to write about the team for the newspaper.

MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann was suspended indefinitely (which turned out to last just two business days) after Politico revealed he contributed to political campaigns without approval — a violation of NBC’s ethics policy. Two weeks later, his colleague at MSNBC, Joe Scarborough, was likewise suspended for two days for undisclosed and unapproved political donations.

5. UK Libel Law Reforms & US Libel Tourism Protection:  The UK has notoriously been known as a “libel tourism” locale. Because the libel laws are plaintiff-friendly, many have headed to Britain in order to file libel lawsuits with hopes of having a more favorable ruling.  This spring, Britain’s secretary of state for justice, Jack Straw, called for an end to libel tourism and a tightening of Britain’s libel law.  Later on in the year, the UK supreme court changed the libel defense of “fair comment”  to “honest comment,” which takes into consideration much of online postings, where people often post comments on blogs and social networking sites without a complete account of events.

In June, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee introduced a bill to block U.S. journalists from foreign libel laws, the SPEECH Act.  While several states – including New York — already had similar provisions, under the bill, U.S. journalists wouldn’t be held to foreign libel judgments if the ruling wouldn’t hold up in the U.S.  In August, the bill was signed into law.  Dr. Rachel Ehrenfeld, who lost a libel suit in 2004 because of her book Funding Evil, was an advocate of the SPEECH Act, and wrote to StinkyJournalism at the time that “it would have been good if the SPEECH Act provided for damages too.”

6. Is WikiLeaks journalism?  The question of what is and what isn’t journalism again rocked the journalism world this year, but most controversially, journalists, governments and the general public struggled to define WikiLeaks.

With newspaper executives calling the leak publication site “a source,” and WikiLeaks itself using journalistic terms and titles such as “editor-in-chief,” there has been no exact answer.  However, there is no denying that WikiLeaks’ collaborations (or partnerships) with major news outlets has raised numerous ethical questions.

See StinkyJournalism’s coverage of WikiLeaks here.

7. Bloggers v Journalists:  A continuing media issue this year was the struggle to define who is a journalist.

An Oregon town sought to legally define who is a journalist this fall. The town, Oswego Lake, set out guidelines for defining journalists versus bloggers in order to determine which media representatives could attend open meetings.

Also in the Pacific Northwest, bloggers fought for journalistic rights in Seattle, Washington this year.  Melissa Westbrook, a Seattle blogger who focuses on the public school system, was told she couldn’t ask questions at a public school news conference, even though “traditional” journalists were afforded that privilege.

This summer, Michigan state senator Bruce Patterson proposed that the state legislature approve a bill requiring journalists to be licensed in the state.

And, bloggers like Shellee Hale fought in court to protect sources as a “traditional journalist” could. Hale was sued for libel as a result of her comments on a forum website. She told StinkyJournalism she doesn’t want to turn over her sources that led to her comments.

8. Unpublishing Requests:  Requests for unpublishing — or the removal of something published online — pose ethical questions for journalists.  The Toronto Star undertook a study about unpublishing that noted many requests are related to the publication of police reports on news outlets websites.  Several news editors explained their policies on unpublishing to StinkyJournalism this spring as well, with the consensus arguing that updating a story is more welcome than unpublishing one.

In August, the Washington Post’s public editor opined that news organizations need a “best practice” for handling unpublishing requests.

9. Updating Codes of Ethics/Editorial Standards:  This summer, the European Journalism Centre’s Howard Hudson proposed a voluntary code of ethics for European journalists.  Throughout revisions, the code of ethics was updated to include bloggers and all of Europe.

In November, the Slovakian journalists’ association updated its code of ethics. Ghana’s journalists have been advised to stick to journalism ethics standards.  Also, the U.S. government has provided training to Liberia’s journalists and the U.S. envoy has advised adherence to media ethics standards.

10.  Problems With Anonymous Comments:  This year, news sites have debated the end of anonymous comments and encountered lawsuits to reveal the identity of those commenters.  A New Hampshire court ruled to protect the identity of an anonymous commenter. Will 2011 bring real name registration requirements to news sites? Or will anonymous comments continue?

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iMediaEthics’ Top Media Ethics Issues of 2010

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