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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Category: Conflicts of Interest

Sensationalism or a Call to Action: Covering the Syrian Refugee Crisis

I met a Syrian refugee this June. Sitting across from me in a crowded Beirut café, the young man told me how he’d escaped from Syria and started working as a news fixer in Lebanon—arranging interviews for journalists and translating when they couldn’t speak Arabic. Later, he’d moved to Turkey and launched a media company—but that had been a challenge because he enjoyed no official legal status in Turkey. He also found it difficult to travel to Europe in order to build his company’s brand.

So, the young man told me, he was back in Lebanon to say a permanent goodbye to his friends in Beirut. This was because he was getting ready to take an “all-or-nothing” chance and swim from the western coast of Turkey to the nearest Greek island. There, he would get a fake ID that would allow him to travel to Sweden, where he’d learned he’d be granted residency.

I don’t know if he made it. After that day in the crowded Beirut café, I never heard from him again. But I’ve been thinking about him lately, as the story of traveling Syrian refugees has flooded the mediascape, and as the image of a drowned Syrian 3-year-old has caught the world’s attention. Maybe my friend has been tracking the events in Hungary and Austria from another crowded café, this one in Stockholm. But then again, maybe not.

One thing this young man told me before our interview ended was that he’s lost all faith in the potential of journalism. He said that the coverage of the Syrian crisis has done nothing to help people like him. I wonder what he’d think of this most recent explosion of news coverage on the Syrian refugees, coverage that raises a number of questions relevant to global journalism ethics.

Syrian refugee camp in Greece. Photo dated September 2012.

Syrian refugee camp in Greece. Photo dated September 2012.

Here, I’d like to examine the question of focus. I’d like to ask when it’s ethical (and when it’s not ethical) for international news media to focus so relentlessly on the trauma that individual people endure. Are there times when it’s ethically necessary to get in the face of death and despair and snap a picture or shoot a video? Are there times when those images must be distributed around the world, regardless of the impact this may have on the individuals who are suffering?

The drowning death of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi certainly invites these questions, since his image has surfaced on numerous media sites, in various stages of censorial blurriness. Nilufer Demir, the Turkish photographer who shot the image, asserts that she wanted to “express the scream of his silent body.” Since then, activists across the world have redistributed that image, in an effort at calling attention to the plight of Syrian refugees, almost five years into the Syrian civil war. Following this, the BBC has asked if this one picture has somehow “shifted our view of refugees.” The image has even inspired U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to attest that the U.S. could do more to protect them. So in one sense, it seems that Demir’s decision to snap a picture of a dead baby on a beach was indeed an ethically justifiable decision.

Yet, even before his own trip from Turkey to the Greek islands, my Syrian friend told me that he, like many Syrians, had lost all faith in the potential of journalism to change his situation. He had briefly worked as a news fixer, not because he wanted to help change the world, but because he needed money to survive. A number of local journalists I interviewed in Beirut over the summer echoed my friend’s doubt. They had long been working with Syrian activists, and knew their frustrations. Years of fruitlessly uploading their images to YouTube had led most Syrians to resent rather than celebrate the foreign news media who covered their oppression, they told me. According to them, help could have come much sooner, and if it comes now, it will not come as a result of western news coverage of the Syrian crisis.

So the question has to be asked: Who is this coverage really for? Is the international distribution of the “captivating” and “horrifying” image of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi capable of comforting his family? Is it capable of inspiring anything other than the rather useless and clichéd compassion of people who will never know such pain (and will never lift a finger to help in any way)?

Young Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Photo dated September 2012.

Young Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Photo dated September 2012.

The admission of more than 5,000 refugees into Austria on Sept. 5 might at first suggest that real change is finally coming. After all, British Prime Minister David Cameron has also just pledged to resettle “thousands more Syrian refugees.” Now, rather than stagnating in the impoverished and disease-ridden camps that crowd parts of Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, maybe these people have a chance at really living again. Maybe these images of traumatized Syrian children (and adults, for that matter) have had an impact that makes them ethically justifiable despite their invasive quality.

The problems become clearer, however, when we start to investigate the less flashy coverage of the Syrian crisis—the coverage that crunches numbers and analyzes concrete trends, instead of merely creating high-resolution slide shows of other people’s suffering. For example, the Washington Post recently reported that since the Syrian war began in 2011, the U.S. and Britain have done little to nothing to relocate the Syrian refugees: the U.S. has resettled only 1,541 refugees since 2011, and Britain has resettled only 216. Other coverage shows that the wealthy Gulf nations rarely help the refugees at all and that some European nations remain opposed to offering any space within their borders. Rather than framing personal trauma in a salacious fashion, this type of news reporting does a much better job of informing the world about what’s really happening to the Syrian refugees.

It’s one of our truisms that ethical journalism must be balanced, and it must give the public what it needs. This increasingly global public needs to know the big numbers and the inconvenient details. While emotional images of dead or traumatized individuals may help to inspire public sentiment, “outrage” and “compassion” are not enough. People need to understand the sticky truths and the diplomatic hypocrisies that plague national and international policies on refugees in the 21st Century. In the case of Syria, the job of international journalists is to illuminate the growing connections and chasms between the Syrian refugees and the nations to which they flee.

Ethics of ABC News Anchor’s Hosting of Partisan Event In Question

The chief White House correspondent from one of the largest news organizations in the country recently came under fire from a left-leaning media watch organization for his involvement in an event hosted by a right-leaning organization.

Jon Karl, a veteran reporter for ABC News, recently moderated a panel discussion between Marco Rubio, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz that was hosted by the Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, an organization that is headed by the Koch brothers, Charles and David. The organization has been called the brothers’ “secret bank.”

Karl’s active participation at the event comes under criticism, according to, because his involvement indirectly lends credibility to an event put on by a partisan organization., itself a liberal-leaning news media website, spoke with several media ethics experts across the country about the matter.

Marc Cooper, the Director of Annenberg Digital News and an associate professor of professional practice at the University of Southern California’s School for Communication and Journalism, voiced his personal disapproval of Karl’s involvement. “The public has no input or access and no public service is being performed. Karl has no business being there.”

Jane Kirtley, professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication, also offered her opinion to ThinkProgress, saying that it appears Karl, “negotiated an arrangement that should allow him to act reasonably independently,” and she didn’t consider the involvement of Karl or ABC News as a contribution to the Koch’s group. Personally, on the other hand, Kirtley voiced her own potential concerns about the matter, saying, “I do think it’s problematic when working journalists ‘moderate’ gatherings of political groups, industry groups, etc. – especially when those groups or topics relate to the beats they cover.”

ThinkProgress also cited the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics when discussing the issue, which says journalists should, “avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived,” and, “avoid political and other outside activities that may compromise integrity or impartiality, or may damage credibility.”

While some major traditional news sources reported on the event, including Time and ABC News, covered the event, ThinkProgress was the only organization covering the event to mention the potential ethics breach.


Read the full article here.


Presenting sponsorships in online verticals highlight need for more transparency

Online news sources see opportunity in developing subscription-based verticals, or separate sites that focus on specific areas such as energy, healthcare or e-commerce.  Theses sites can rationalize pay wall protection because they require specialized reporting resources but have a limited audience appeal.  Politico Pro offers 14 verticals, the newest being one addressing labor and employment.

Writing for the Huffington Post, Michael Calerdone notes that Politico sees opportunity in this area as major newspapers and other traditional news outlets scale back resources covering labor.  According to an interview with Marty Kady, editor of Politico Pro, the site’s marketing research shows that there remains a real interest in the details of labor policy among stakeholders in areas including lobbying, government and Fortune 500 companies.

Subscriptions for Pro verticals cost in the thousands of dollars, and the latest offering is one that may appeal to unions, law firms and companies wanting the latest workplace policy news. And Pro coverage, like that appearing on the main Politico site, is expected to be nonpartisan.

But in staffing the labor and employment vertical, Politico has turned to experienced journalists known for expressing points of view with their reporting. Timothy Noah, a liberal writer who spent years at The New Republic, Slate and MSNBC, will edit the four-person staff, which also includes Mike Elk, a labor reporter who recently worked for the left-leaning magazine, In These Times.

It seems quite reasonable to include reporters known for offering individual points of view, especially when reporting on policy decisions that are subject to debate, partisan or otherwise.  Some may see the risk of inherent bias in this kind of staffing; others recognize that with solid editorial over site, stories can be presented responsibly.

It may not be as easy to maintain an air of objectivity when a vertical supported with hefty subscription fees also come with presenting sponsors.

Writing for In These Times, Arun Gupta point out that one of the very first sponsor of Political Pro’s labor and employment seems to be more than just your average advertiser.

However, the Politico labor vertical made a curious decision in its first week. Its newsletter, “Morning Shift,” debuted October 7 with the tagline, “Your daily speed read on labor and employment policy” and a sponsorship from the International Franchise Association—a trade group representing franchised businesses like McDonald’s and Domino’s Pizza, as well as their franchise owners . Two days later, Morning Shift covered a labor issue of enormous importance to the IFA— whether McDonald’s has a legal responsibility for working conditions in franchises—but never mentioned the sponsor’s stake in the story, and editorialized in a way that could give the appearance of favoring the IFA’s position.

Gupta wonders how a news platform that presents itself as non-partisan (according to Calderone’s HuffPo piece) squares with the presentation of a labor report by a trade association that represents a sector “where unions and workplace rights are virtually nonexistent and wage theft and poverty is rampant.” (Gupta provides links to support those charges.)

Still, a sponsor with a vested interest in how information is reported can create serious conflicts of interest. Politico could be more transparent about the possibility of such a conflict if it noted IFA’s involvement in the McDonald’s story—which it never does. Further, at times, the Morning Shift appears to slant its reporting toward IFA in the October 9 Morning Shift report.

Sponsorships as well as advertising are key to the financial success of news sites.  Reporting resources take money, often much more than subscriptions can deliver, especially at start-up.  It would certainly go a long way in establishing and maintaining credibility of news sites acknowledged the sponsor-as-subject connection in a transparent and responsible manner, especially when specific stories seem to favor a presenting sponsor.

Read Calderone’s article here.

Read Gupta’s article here.