As in recent years, iMediaEthics has assembled our list of what we found to be ten of the most important media ethics issues from 2017.
10. AP before World War II and Nazis
In May 2017, the Associated Press released the results of its investigation into its working relationship with the Nazis in Germany before World War II. The AP denied being “in any way complicit,” although acknowledged employing a “few” pro-Nazi Germans. The AP said in hindsight it shouldn’t have used German photographers affiliated with the Nazis and complained about the Nazis using AP photos for propaganda. The yearlong review of the AP’s records was triggered by historian Harriet Scharnberg’s research, as iMediaEthics reported.
The AP listed some of its “key findings for the period 1933-41,” which included that German media changed AP photo captions to be “misleading or offensive.” The AP didn’t fight the German media’s changes to its captions, German staffers in the AP’s German photo subsidiary were pressured by Nazi propaganda officials, and the AP followed a 1935 anti-Semitic rule against employing Jewish people, the AP acknowledged. The AP noted in that case, they helped six former Jewish staffers get out of the country and find new jobs.
Read the story.
9. Rolling Stone and Rape on Campus
Rolling Stone published its now-discredited report “A Rape on Campus” back in 2014. But, the fallout continued. While the magazine apologized for and eventually retracted the article, the damage was done.
In 2017, Rolling Stone settled lawsuits by University of Virginia administrator Nicole Eramo and the university’s chapter of Phi Kappa Psi. In addition, the U.S. Court of Appeals overturned the dismissal of a lawsuit by three university alumni. The Rolling Stone controversy made the top spot of iMediaEthics’ Top 10 Libel Lawsuits of 2017.
8. Offensive commentary
The maxim may be that no question is a bad question. But throughout 2017 there were countless cases of media outlets publishing something offensive, inappropriate or misguided. From a Boston radio host calling baseball player Roy Halladay a moron just after he died in a plane crash, to a Minnesota newspaper firing a columnist who fat shamed, we at iMediaEthics were inundated by examples of tweets, comments, and columns that were either completely beyond the pale or were not thought through.
Some examples: The Huffington Post published then deleted a blogpost arguing Trump supporters “deserve to die.” They also published an article calling for white men to lose the right to vote. Barstool Sports tried to fat-shame Rihanna, a Globe and Mail columnist wrote about trying to breastfeed a stranger’s child, and a Cleveland radio host claimed a Cleveland Browns player was using drugs. A Montreal Gazette sports reporter tweeted that Shania Twain looked like a tramp, Irish radio host George Hook got in trouble for rape-victim-blaming comments, and Australian site Mumbrella was slammed for and took down a fat-shaming post about author Roxane Gay.
A Pennsylvania columnist seemingly belittled track and field athletes, a Gannett columnist suggested a football player hit his son because he descended from slaves, and the Los Angeles Times took back a comment likening White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders to a “chunky soccer mom.” A Denver Post sports writer lost his job after tweeting that a Japanese racer winning the Indy 500 made him “very uncomfortable,” ESPN apologized for a fantasy football draft segment that resembled slave auctions, and Ben Shapiro apologized for his site the Daily Wire’s video about Columbus Day. Oh, and an Australian radio host asked a Taiwanese-Asian reporter if she is “yellow,” and then apologized for “coming across racist.”
Like we said, there were tons of examples of bad commentary, which in many cases resulted in apologies or disciplinary actions. In 2018, think before you tweet or share.
7. Shifting Role of the Ombudsman
Ombudsmen, or public editors, typically represent the public at a news outlet, responding to complaints, investigating ethical concerns and more. But 2017 saw a shake up with the ombudsman role around the globe, including the trend of American news outlets losing their ombudsman position over recent years.
In May, the New York Times suddenly eliminated its public editor position, essentially firing Liz Spayd, the paper’s sixth public editor, with a year left on her contract. A few months earlier, the Kansas City Star ended its public editor role. PBS, however, decided to maintain the role, hiring Madhulika Sikka as its public editor in September.
Internationally, Germany’s most-read newspaper Bild appointed an ombudsman in February. The decision came after the paper fell for a fake story about a mob of migrants sexually assaulting people. And Nigeria’s Premium Times appointed a seven-member ombudsman team in May to help “make its journalism more transparent.” The University of Toronto’s college newspaper The Varsity also appointed its first public editor in January.
6. Misidentifying Suspects in Breaking News Stories
With every breaking news story, the rush to be first to publish a new detail is overpowering. In the past few years, we’ve seen numerous news outlets name the wrong person or provide other inaccurate claims about a high profile news story. But in 2017, it seemed like example after example occurred.
In February, the Daily Beast incorrectly identified two people as suspects in the attack on the Quebec Islamic Cultural Centre.
In March, UK Channel 4 TV news identified the wrong man as behind the Westminster terror attack.
In May, Gateway Pundit identified the wrong person as behind the massacre in Las Vegas that killed more than 50.
In August, Gateway Pundit and GotNews, two conservative websites, identified the wrong person as the driver of the Charlottesville attack that injured more than a dozen and killed Heather Heyer, an anti-fascist activist.
5. Hacking scandal continues
It’s been nearly seven years since the summer that brought down Rupert Murdoch’s disgraced tabloid News of the World, with daily news stories revealing bad behavior and hacking by some affiliated with the News Corp. paper. Despite the time passed, and the conclusion of the Leveson Inquiry into press standards, the hacking scandal got another burst of oxygen when in the spring, approximately 50 people sued News UK alleging hacking. Then in May, Elizabeth Hurley won a “substantial” lawsuit from Trinity Mirror, which publishes the Daily Mirror and other publications, over the hacking of her phone many years ago.
4. Online comments sections continue to falter
The trend of news outlets limiting or closing altogether their comments sections continued in 2017 with numerous news sites closing down online comments.
In July, MSN quietly ended online comments on its site because of “abusing and offensive posts.” The same month, the Bozeman Daily Chronicle shut down its online comments because the section amounted to “I’m smart, you’re dumb.” Over the summer, NPR decided it wouldn’t reopen its comments section, which it closed the year before. In September, Al Jazeera quashed its online comments section because of “vitriol, bigotry, racism and sectarianism.” And in October, the Irish Independent ended online comments because of “draconian libel awards.” Then, in November, Crain’s Chicago Business said it was “pulling the plug” on online comments.
3. BuzzFeed publishing Trump Russia dossier
In January 2017, BuzzFeed published a dossier purportedly containing unverified intelligence memos about Donald Trump. The list immediately triggered journalism ethics questions and quickly prompted a libel lawsuit. But the dossier will have lasting implications. iMediaEthics already had this on our list of media ethics issues, and the importance of this was bolstered by Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen filing a libel lawsuit against BuzzFeed just days into January 2018.
2. Public interest in reporting on pasts of newsworthy subjects
When the news spotlight hits a relatively unknown person, how should the media react? What information should be reported or left out? Those questions arose this year especially in light of the April incident where Dr. David Dao was dragged off a United Airlines flight. Video footage of the incident went viral, and news outlets scrambled to learn more about what happened and the players involved. The Courier-Journal in Kentucky reported on Dao’s past conviction from more than a decade earlier, raising questions about whether it was fair to report on his background.
1 .Behavior in the workplace
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that in the fall and through the winter, well-known men have been held or called to account for their behavior and conduct. Household names including Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer and Garrison Keilor lost their jobs, as well as reporters at the New Yorker and BuzzFeed and executives at NPR. Read iMediaEthics’ list of media figures who were suspended, fired, or ousted in 2017 because of allegations concerning their behavior.
Already, just days into 2018, the Washington Post has suspended reporter Joel Achenbach for 90 days over “inappropriate workplace conduct.”
I find it remarkable that trust-building did not make the number 1 spot. There are 2 components to this. The lack of aggressiveness by media companies 1) to beef up their ethics codes and reporting/editing behavior, and 2) make their ethics codes transparent and understandable to the public and to teach the pubic what real journalism is and how it’s done and why.