Tag Archives: ethics

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Weekly listserv journal – RSS, ethics for online media, and camera phones

As part of a class project I’ve been reading the Online-News mailing list and responding to some of the issues and discussion brought up there.

I went ahead and looked up some info on RSS.  It seems pretty interesting-details can be found at http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/tech/rss.  RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication, a common format for content you want others to be able to pick up through their news sites, blogs, and web applications.  It’s a flavor of XML, which allows you to set up different channels and different items within the channel, with some other standard tags like creator and description.  It’s nice because it’s an open format, and it seems to be getting pretty big.  Like so many other things, there’s a set of dueling specifications for it, though some are backwards compatible with each other which is nice.  If more sites keep using it, I’m sure Microsoft will ad their own proprietary version to Office any day now.

One thing that’s interesting about this list is that people use it to announce papers, books, and projects.  For example, there’s “The current status and potential development of online news consumption: A structural approach” by An Nguyen at http://www.firstmonday.org/issues/issue8_9/nguyen/index.html, which makes the bland assertion that more news web sites are going up and more people are getting their news from the web.  That one was mentioned by someone who had read it; other times the writers themselves make announcements like Robert Berkman, who co-wrote Digital Dilemmas: Ethical Issues for Online Media Professionals.  This book likes kind of interesting, just because I’ve read a few journalism ethics books and they usually don’t have much on online journalism.  There are some important issues which are particularly pressing online as opposed to print–like reader privacy.

In other threads, some people have been discussing a poster called “JOE BIALEK” who seems to have appeared out of nowhere to write huge diatribes.  The name looked familiar to me and some of the other posters confirmed my suspicion-he’s a troll from Usenet and other forums who tries to start fights.  There was an interesting meta-thread about how these sorts of things happen.  Another thread was about the use of mobile phone cameras by reporters.  The first poster talked about how great it could be, but others quickly added there could be ethical concerns.  It might not be a great idea to let your reporter (who’s not a trained news photographer) take insensitive pictures of victims and post them without going through an editor first.

Does public relations perform a public service?

A response to Taking Sides – Clashing Views in Mass Media and Society – Issue 16

Although this chapter asks if public relations practitioners provide a service to the public, James Lukaszewski’s essay does not address the topic but instead gives tips about how to do PR better.  Stuart Ewen’s essay says that PR has swung between responding to public demands and trying to control the public and is now a tool used by those with wealth to keep it.

Lukaszewski’s essay, originally a speech to end a two-week seminar on PR, could just as easily apply to a seminar of secretaries or dentists.  It’s just a list of platitudes to make one more effective at what one is doing.  His seven are: be constructive, be positive, be prompt, be outcome-focused, be reflective, and be pragmatic.  He says this will help one become transformational but I’m not sure that necessarily applies to transforming public opinion through mass media but rather transforming your own business or job performance.

Ewen begins with a short history of PR, beginning around 1900 when large companies had to face an informed public and build up confidence in free market business.  It later changed to a matter of convincing or tricking the masses into doing what corporations wanted, though after World War II it went back and forth between these two goals.  Because of the social movements of the 1960s, PR moved away from toeing the party line and began advocating companies encourage different perspectives and groups, targeting African Americans, for example.  This has shifted now from advocating participatory democracy to studying and targeting special demographics.  Ewen says this can be divisive and that PR has helped corporations dismantle welfare capitalism.  Lately PR has become much more pervasive and demographics have identified and cordoned off minorities.  Ewen’s closing section points out that PR is most often used by those with all the wealth to perpetuate themselves.

These essays were a pretty weak look at the issue.  The first one was nothing but an inspirational speaker who could have been talking to any profession and the second only got to a real point near the end.  Also, this seems like a silly question.  Does PR provide a service?  Of course-to the company who hired the PR people.  Does it provide a service to the public or boost democracy?  Probably not, but it was never meant to.  Ewen touches on part of the problem right at the end of his essay-PR serves those with mass media access and money to hire them with, i.e. the elites and large corporations.  The only place a public service could enter into this is if the PR is for a non-profit or other group working for the public interest.

Is Advertising Ethical?

A response to Taking Sides – Clashing Views in Mass Media and Society – Issue 7

Examining issue 7, Is Advertising Ethical, John Calfree argues advertising has important and far reaching benefits while Russ Baker counters that advertisers exert unwelcome pressure on media outlets.

Calfree’s argument, though broken into several sections, is basically that ads provide the audience with more information and that competition will force companies into disclosing accurate and beneficial information (usually in the form of less-bad advertising).  His first main example is fiber-most Amercians were unaware of the health benefits of fiber until Kellogg’s started advertising about it.  Soon many food brands were advertising about their own health benefits and consumers soon knew about a slew of nutrients to watch for.  The second major example he uses is the way in which cigarette companies highlighted problems with smoking in order to boost confidence in their brand.  This ended up scaring away customers.

Calfee keeps on referring to the benefits of unregulated market forces and how the market itself necessarily marches toward more and better information for the consumer.  Unfortunately, all he gives are examples of highly regulated forces.  Without the Surgeon General, the FDA and the FTC, those pro-fiber ads would have shared the air with the same flim-flam snake oil ads that filled magazines in the 1800s.  Market forces themselves only drive advertisers to make incredible claims; government oversight and outside reporting is what forces those claims to be scientific.  Calfree acknowledges this in a way when he says effective advertising uses information people have from outside the ad-so how is the ad itself then informing anyone?

Baker provides ample evidence for his thesis that advertisers try-often successfully-to influence the content of what is printed in publications.  The letter from Chrysler demanding editorial review of anything socially provocative was specially chilling.  The automaker, the fifth-largest advertiser in the country, was more or less demanding a seat on the editorial board.  And many magazines gave it to them.  The more successful a publication is and the more advertisers it has the less powerful one advertiser becomes, of course, but not all magazines have this luxury.  Baker says the biggest danger is self-censorship by editors and publishers who do not want to risk alienating the people who pay the bills.

Personally I agree with Calfree only to the point that things like price competition really do benefit the consumer.  Baker is right about advertisers wanting to influence editorial copy, and though I think many publications can stand to lose a few big sponsors over and important story, many won’t simply because they’re more concerned with higher profit rather than independence.  And special advertising sections and advertorials I find especially disturbing; when I was in Naples the print paper did a special advertising section on plastic surgery filled with wire stories about the benefits with no other point of view represented at all.  There are definite downsides and risks to plastic surgery, but you wouldn’t know it from the very hard-news looking section in the paper that day.