Category: Ethical Analysis


On March 26, 2012, two 16-year-old girls were arrested and charged with the 2011 murder of 32-year-old cab driver Adam Williams. Emily Starnes and Consandra Tyree, who are being held in the Hickory Police Department in North Carolina, were also charged with robbery with firearms and conspiracy to commit robbery. Major outlets – the two I’ve chosen to look at are ABC and CBS – picked up the shocking news, but reported the story in vastly different ways. I think these points illustrate journalistic ethics at work (or not) in a contemporary situation.

ABC chose to write up a 13-paragraph story, complete with a brief video. The girls’ full names appeared both in print and verbally during the video, and pictures of their faces are shown prominently at the top of the article. The article states that others have been arrested in connection with this crime, but the headline only refers to the two teenage girls.

CBS reported the story as a 20-picture slideshow. Each slide was accompanied by a paragraph explaining the basics of the story, as well as who appeared in each photo. The girls were again fully named, and the headline said nothing regarding the other detained suspects. The slideshow contained several pictures of each girl, most of them posed in the “self-shot” style popular with teenagers on Facebook. Some shots show a significant amount of cleavage. At the very end of the slideshow are three pictures of the males arrested for the crime. Only their mug shots appear; there are no “normal” pictures like you’d probably find on Facebook.

This is a multi-faceted case, and one of the issues needing attention here was the choice to name the suspects. ABC mentioned in its article that 16-year-olds in North Carolina are legally tried as adults, and so life imprisonment is a possibility. This could be all the justification the journalist, Christina Ng, needed. However, just because something might be legal doesn’t make it ethical. The two are not necessarily bound. In the American legal system, unlike in many foreign countries, the burden of proof lies with the accuser. Everyone is innocent until proven guilty. So, at the time of writing these articles, Starnes and Tyree were legally innocent. Providing full names as well as a couple of large photos (or 20 in CBS’ case) might not have been the best route to take to protect these young girls, especially if you follow a Kantian method and don’t prefer to use people as a means to an end. Also, looking at journalism codes, reducing harm is a pillar in several of them. Because they were currently detained in jail, there was arguably little need to identify as they were no longer a danger to the public.

Secondly, we have the issue of the personal Facebook photos. The CBS story contains several of them, but very few of them give us any information. They are simple glamour shots that show the girls in a very vibrant, attractive light – almost as if they couldn’t possibly have committed the crimes levied against them. In contrast, only three pictures of the arrested males were shown, and they were the dreary, unflattering mug shots taken at the police station. There were no photos of the boys playing sports or video games or anything that would paint them in a boyish, positive light. I didn’t conduct a survey here, but I don’t think people would have a hard time pegging the blame on the scruffy looking men instead of the cute teenage girls. It was an odd choice, and one I think could have benefited from a dose of Aristotle.

The Golden Mean could have helped narrow down exactly which pictures were most appropriate. At one extreme, a journalist would probably run the story with no pictures and no names. At the other end we’d have a combination of ABCs’ and CBS’ stories: Text with names, a news video, and a gallery full of mug shots and Facebook photos. Between these two ends lies the course of action I’d find most agreeable, which is to use the mug shots of all the suspects (assuming your editor requires a photo) and nothing more. Those types of photos are very thin content-wise. It’s there to show you a face, not to tell you how to think about said face.

Overall, ABC did a better job of respecting the girls’ privacy, though I personally would have done more. Had they not been apprehended, then I’d agree with posting names and pictures to get the public to assist law enforcement. But because they were safely behind bars, I don’t think posting their info was necessary. ABC’s story only shows the mug shot photos, so it doesn’t try to persuade the viewer with the rhetoric of the Facebook photos, which have no place in a story like this. CBS’ story, which was actually just a couple of nearly-identical paragraphs next to a bunch of self-shot glamour shots, seems a bit exploitative and disrespectful to young girls who are, as of writing this, still legally innocent.

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Starting in late December and continuing into early January, a series of articles was posted to Kotaku – which is owned by Gawker Media – about a man named Paul Christoforo. Christoforo was a public relations worker for a video game hardware company, and when dealing with an impatient customer he chose to use a lot of indecent (and misspelled) words. The private emails between Paul and Dave (the customer) were forwarded to Mike Krahulik, who manages a video game trade show that draws in 70,000 people each year. These emails then reached Kotaku and many other large press sites.

First, and some may find this to be a non-issue, I don’t believe that this warrants news status. These are personal emails between a business and a consumer, and though they seemed unnecessarily rude to each other, this doesn’t seem like it’s something that should have been published for an audience of thousands.

Though the issue itself is charged, what’s even more appalling is how reporters chose to cover the issue. They certainly didn’t abide by the Kantian method of decision-making, as they basically hung him up for the Internet to see. They dug into his personal life, discovered some of his dirtiest facts, and displayed them for all to see.

One reporter at Kotaku found Paul Christoforo’s personal Facebook page. Unfortunately, most of his pictures were self-condemning, and they were embarrassing and didn’t help his defense at all. His pictures were used in a post about the subject, which was viewed by hundreds of thousands of people. The reporter, Joel Johnson, also did a Google search on Paul Christoforo’s email and uncovered a forum post about “coming off a 16 week [steroid] Test Cycle.” The headline of the post in which the information was contained stated that Christoforo’s rage-filled email might have been due to the illegal use of steroids and the ensuing “roid rage.”

When applying the different philosophies, it becomes easier to make a decision regarding this matter. As I mentioned, Kant would not go to the same means as Johnson did. Digging into a person’s personal life and discovering their shameful secrets is a means to an end to some, but to Kant that would be unacceptable. A utilitarian may choose to pursue this, as shaming Christoforo – a rude, inconsiderate, incompetent salesperson – might shed light on the company as a whole. However, there was nothing to suggest that everyone else was “corrupted,” so the benefits might not outweigh the costs of smearing a man all over the face of the Internet.

I would have personally gone with Rawls’ veil of ignorance. Behind the veil, one can attempt to think clearly and cast aside any unfair biases or status issues that might hinder one from discovering the “right” course of action. Kotaku reporter Owen Good did this in his article, “A Beatdown in Which No One Threw the First Punch.” From a position of neutrality and control, the blame was spread across all parties who were, in some way, accountable.

Turning to the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, one major responsibility is to seek and report the truth. One specific part, “take certain that headlines, news teases and promotional material, photos, video, audio, graphics, sound bites and quotations do not misrepresent. They should not oversimplify or highlight incidents out of context,” was clearly violated.

Christoforo was already making a poor case for himself by using insensitive words, ignoring rules of spelling and punctuation, and generally refusing to admit he’d done any wrong. But the reporter, Joel Johnson, used his “meat head, tattooed, beer-drinking” photos to further his point that Paul is, in general, not a very savory human being. Along with a misleading headline that may or may not have been true, the picture in the reader’s mind about Paul Christoforo was painted by the reporter far before they actually dug into the meat of the story, and that is not something a journalist should practice.

This was a strange situation, one that concluded in more personal attacks than what one is accustomed to in the news. Christoforo lost his job during the holidays. Some outraged readers made death threats against him and his family. And, as of now, very little noticeable good has come of the situation. I don’t think the journalists did a fine job addressing all the stakeholders in this situation, and instead they lunged at a man with very little defense and not many opportunities to defend himself.

 

Links to the series of articles I just referenced:

Original outing. 
Digging up the dirt. 
Analysis of the various wrongs.