Skip to main content
University of Wisconsin–Madison

Category: In the news

Charlie Hebdo Controversy Raises Ethical Questions on a Global Scale

The French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo is notorious for causing controversy. Long before the January 2015 attack on the publication’s journalists, cartoonists were raising eyebrows with images that some people found to be distasteful at best and racist at worst.

Apologists for the magazine have always responded by invoking the political power of satire, as well as the press’s right to free speech.

Now Charlie Hebdo is embroiled in another controversy, this one centering on the publication’s depiction of Syrian refugees struggling—often unsuccessfully—to make it safely to Europe. The social media sphere has exploded in debate, with some commentators asserting that Charlie is mocking Syrian refugees like 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, and others declaring that the magazine is actually criticizing the European nations that have failed to help the Syrian migrants.

This debate raises ethical questions that are inevitably global in nature. As the media ethicist Stephen Ward argues, “Global power entails global responsibility.” This means that a globally recognized outlet like Charlie Hebdo doesn’t get to simply be a “French” magazine anymore, speaking only to a French audience. In fact, this publication can’t even claim to be strictly “European,” especially now that people around the world have held vigils, saying “We are all Charlie.”

It’s time for publications like Charlie Hebdo to stop pretending that they only have a national or regional audience. That means paying more attention to the diverse perspectives of an increasingly global public. It also means being more transparent about who and what these cartoons are actually for. If “we are all Charlie,” then Charlie might benefit from thinking about all of us.

​Western Illinois University student suspension dropped following First Amendment rights dispute

The publication of footage depicting police using pepper spray on students at a campus protest originally landed a Western Illinois University student in hot water with the university’s administration recently, according to attorneys representing the student.

The administration’s charges against the student, Nicholas Stewart, who was suspended on the grounds of being a threat to normal university operations, were dropped this past month.

Stewart characterized his reporting as necessary and fair, although it placed the university in bad light. He called the dispute both insanity and without precedent.

“We never had an issue with this before,” Stewart said. “Yes, we’d get an email here or there upset with us about reporting on an event, but never to the degree that Western took at the end of January.”

The university argued that Stewart’s status as Editor-in-Chief at The Western Courier, the school’s newspaper, put him under their jurisdiction and supervision.

However, in a letter from the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), President Dana Neuts argued that since the incident occurred during a period when The Western Courier was not even printing, Stewart was operating as a freelance journalist in his coverage.

“The First Amendment gives him the right to record a news event with his own equipment and post it or sell it as a freelance journalist,” Neuts wrote. “The university’s policies are unclear regarding freelance work, so Stewart should be given the benefit of the doubt.”

“All Mr. Stewart did in this case was act as a freelance journalist.  His right to do so was fully protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution,” attorney Gabriel Fuentes said in a press release.

On Feb. 2 following the legal dispute, Western Illinois University reinstated Stewart, waiving the original suspension.

“We have a duty to report what is happening, and we have to inform people what is going on,” Stewart said. “After being reinstated, this whole battle hasn’t affected my feeling toward my original policy. I think now, after the outpouring of support I received, I doubt Western would make reckless decisions like suspending me again in the future.”

Stewart stressed that the role of administration regarding the school newspaper should purely be that of a monitor, not intervening in terms of censorship.

“They should have no say in suspending the staff for our reporting and our opinions. As it is, they have no say in the hiring or firing process,” Stewart said.

In a recent Education Week commentary, however, Frank LoMonte argues that the law falls in favor of the school, not the student journalist, in many instances.

“When schools are challenged over the misuse of censorship authority, they invariably fall back on the same tired rationalization: The law allows it,” LoMonte wrote.

Citing the 1988 Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier ruling as justification, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a school-subsidized outlet’s freedom of the press can be curtailed and limited by the institution, schools do have some power, but often overextend their legal reach, according to LoMonte.

“Schools hold students and teachers to a standard of optimal behavior, not minimally legally compliant behavior,” LoMonte wrote.

The SPJ condemned this standard two years ago, claiming that this practice “impedes … [a student journalist’s instruction] including the right to question authority and investigate performances of governance.”

Stewart, however, is optimistic regarding future disputes in which student journalists and administrations square off.

“I’m glad my case set a precedent not only to Western, but also to other university administrations that might attempt to silence the news by going after the newspaper staff,” Stewart said.

Calls seeking comment from the Western Illinois University officials were not returned.

Presentation of news or projection of a narrative: Hard to tell in the case of Michelle Obama and the headscarf

Recent media coverage that claimed the First Lady caused uproar in Saudi Arabia is being called misleading and racist by several media organizations.

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama took a trip to Saudi Arabia for the mourning ceremony of Saudi King Abdullah, and the First Lady was seen at the ceremony without a headscarf on, which all Saudi women are required to wear in public.

Reporters across the media landscape claimed that the First Lady received a heavy amount of backlash from the people of Saudi Arabia, and that it was seen as a political stand for the women of Saudi Arabia. Conservative Senator Ted Cruz even shared his own thoughts on the matter, tweeting out, “Kudos to @FLOTUS for standing up for women & refusing to wear Sharia-mandated head-scarf in Saudi Arabia. Nicely Done.”

Several news organizations were quick to point out that Michelle Obama was not making a stand against Saudi society, but was just following what many other women had done before her. Some writers turned away from hard news to in turn criticize those who falsely called the event a controversy, stating that the media was perpetuating stereotypes of Saudi Arabians.

Vox Media reporter Max Fisher reported that the First Lady was simply following standard protocol, and that the two first ladies before her, Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush, had also not worn headscarves when making visits to the country, and neither did former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. He took it a step further, however, stating, “much of the American media has instead only perpetuated the different but very real American problem Islamophobic and anti-Arab stereotyping.”

It was also reported by some major news organizations, including the Washington Post, that the First Lady caused a backlash on twitter. In the Washington Post, it was reported that 1,500 tweets were sent out during the visit by the President and First Lady. However, Wall Street Journal writer Ahmed Al Omran tweeted, “Saudi has millions of Twitter users. When a few hundred of them talk about something, that’s not a backlash. It’s a flicker.”

In addition to just following protocol, some news sources offered up additional reasons as to why they felt the First Lady may not have been wearing a headscarf. The Atlanta Black Star suggested that the First Lady avoided the headscarf so that she would be, “steering clear of any additional fuss from extreme right wing politicians’ obsession with stigmatizing the first family as Muslims.”  President Obama has long been falsely labeled as a Muslim since 2006.

Vox took it a step further, stating that, “American media completely freaked out, got a number of basic facts wildly wrong, and did so all in a way that insulted that country and its citizens by perpetuating racist stereotypes.” Vox later reiterated their view, stating that the coverage of the First Lady in Saudi Arabia, “has instead only perpetuated the different but very real American problem of Islamophobic and anti-Arab stereotyping.

Read the full Vox article here.

ESPNU reporter slammed over “joke” tweet about FSU shooting

An ESPNU reporter sent out a tweet late last night that has many people around the internet shocked and upset.

According to the Washington Post, Marisa Martin, a University of Alabama student who works with ESPNU’s Campus Connection Program, sent out a tweet last night following reports of a gunman at Florida State University that stated: “Reported gunman on the FSU campus. Maybe he is heading for Jameis.” The tweet, referencing Florida State’s Heisman-winning quarterback Jameis Winston, proved upsetting to many people, especially when it became known that Martin is a reporter for an ESPN property.

After receiving heavy criticism from other Twitter users, Martin then tweeted: “Since apparently I cant make a joke in all seriousness I hope everyone at FSU is safe & that the gunman is found. But I stand by my opinions.” This further infuriated people across the web, and Martin eventually deleted her Twitter account and claimed through the University of Alabama ESPNU Campus Connection Twitter feed that she had supposedly been hacked and apologized for the tweets.

The story has been picked up across the internet , with a variety of media outlets covering the story.  The late claim that the Twitter account was hacked notwithstanding, the ESPNU student reporter’s alleged posting of a tasteless serves as yet another example in the seemingly endless stream of damning one’s credibility in 140 characters or less.


Thought Catalog alleges bias in Washington Post piece

The publisher and members of Thought Catalog, a popular site similar to Buzzfeed and Upworthy, are upset with Washington Post over the question of bias following an article published in the Post.

According to, the Washington Post article, titled “Inside the contradictory world of Thought Catalog, one of the Internet’s most reviled sites,” is seen by the executive editor of the Post as, “fairly straightforward and expansively reported… [and] anything but inflammatory.”

However, as Romensko’s piece points out, Thought Catalog Publisher Chris Lavergne became aware of the apparent bias of the reporter of the piece, Tim Herrera, following its publication. Lavergne cited Herreras running of a blog titled “Thought Catalog Haters,” a tweet in which Herrera confirmed he ran the blog, and numerous other tweets in which he supposedly “expresses animosity towards Thought Catalog.”

While Thought Catalog publishes some material that may offend or insult many people across the media landscape, there appears to be a conflict of interest with Herrera being the one to write this Post piece, given his known and public disdain towards Thought Catalog.

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.

Rolling Stone journalist and Koch Industries exchange barbs over fairness

A Rolling Stone’s contributing editor and Koch Industries recently got into a battle of conflicting reports regarding Koch Industries’ practices and history, raising questions of subjectivity and objectivity.

Tim Dickinson, a contributing editor for Rolling Stone writing primarily on National Affairs, recently wrote an in-depth story outlining how Charles and David Koch, the CEO and Executive VP, respectively for Koch Industries, amassed their wealth and the allegedly illicit practices that the company has engaged in over the years.

Dickinson focuses on a wide array of topics, from the history of the Koch family all the way to their expansion into high finance. Many of Koch Industries wrongful actions are highlighted throughout the piece, painting the picture of the multi-billion dollar private corporation as a classic business empire bent on achieving the most wealth as possible.

When this story was released, Koch Industries was quick to release a press statement regarding the exposé on their company. In their press release, Koch was adamant in their opposition of what Dickinson used in his story, saying that based on what they saw as, “past distorted and dishonest coverage of Koch” Dickinson would not be “fair and objective” with them.

The press release then went on to target Dickinson himself, citing his, “willful omissions” of answers that the company provided for him, as well as attacks on his credibility as a journalist, saying they felt Dickinson, “was simply regurgitating and cribbing from past pieces hostile to Koch,” and cited his career at “left-wing outlets like Mother Jones” for his biased views.

Dickinson himself then responded to the press release, pointing out major discrepancies from the press release, such as the fact that a supposed off-the-record email was published as a part of the press release.

Through this exchange of heated words between a journalist and his source, both sides seem to be to an extent accurate in their arguments.

Dickinson, throughout his piece, cited huge amounts of information regarding about Koch Industries allegedly illicit past practices and disregard for the safety of citizens in order to increase their profits. Salon posted an article summary clearly outlining eight points of key information that Dickinson shared about Koch, including when they were found to be stealing oil from Native Americans.

Dickinson, however, omits some information that may have made the article more objective. In their press release, Koch cited several articles that showed that in some respects, they were working with communities to improve plants and refineries owned by the company, such as this one by the Star Tribune. With these omissions, Dickinson is seemingly only focusing on the negatives that Koch has done, thus falling short of attempts to minimize his story of any bias.

Koch, on the other hand, does not stop at refuting Dickinson’s claims. In their first few paragraphs of the press release, Koch aims to paint themselves as the good guy and Dickinson as a biased journalist with a hidden agenda. Instead of simply providing details to counter some of the claims of the articles, Koch aims to diminish Dickinson’s image and reputation as a journalist. They further muddied the water by publishing information from what they earlier agreed were off-the-record emails.

In the case of this back and forth “he-said, she-said” debate, both sides appear to be at fault in some sense. Dickinson seems to have fallen short in his attempt to remain objective, while Koch chose to go after Dickinson personally.  Unfortunately, sources and their spokespeople are not really bound to ethical standards in the same way journalists are.  As such, while subjects may lob ad hominem attacks at journalists, journalists are best served letting their reporting speak for itself.

Email exchanges suggest CNN’s “Chicagoland” producers collaborated with Mayor Rahm Emanuel

According to the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel had an instrumental hand in shaping certain scenes of CNN’s supposedly unscripted documentary “Chicagoland.”

The Tribune reviewed more than 700 emails, which reveal that the producers worked closely with staff from the mayor’s office while filming the weekly episodes. In the emails, the mayor’s office expressed desire to pitch story ideas and even implied that their office had some editing power. In one such exchange between an Emanuel public relations representative and a mayoral aide, the aide wrote back that they would “have edits shortly.”

Still, other email messages were redacted, with the mayor’s office citing an exemption in Illinois open records law that says opinions or exchanges related to policy formulation do not have to be shared, the Tribune wrote. 

Also according to the newspaper, an Emanuel spokeswoman said that the mayor had worked with CNN as it would with any news outlet. The mayor had not provided information different from what he would usually give to reporters, including the Chicago Tribune, the spokeswoman said.

Before making a public records request for the emails, the Tribune ran a story in March questioning the motives behind the Chicagoland series. The story calls Chicagoland a “re-election campaign vehicle” and a way for Emanuel to sell “his heroic narrative.” Emanuel is portrayed as the hero above all the chaos of Chicago, and as the man who never backs down, the Tribune wrote. Although critics of Emanuel are allowed screen time, such criticism is juxtaposed against a “calm, reasonable and above the fray Rahm.”

Media critic Robert Feder, who had written an earlier blog post in favor of the series, later wrote that his “confidence was misplaced.” Feder said he reached out to Konkol, the Pulitzer-Prize winning narrator of the series, and Konkol remains proud of his role, which was to tell the story of real struggles facing Chicago.

It’s ironic that a documentary intended to reveal the political and social problems of Chicago partnered with political leaders. Even if the exchanges between the filmmakers and the mayor’s office wasn’t as collusive as the Tribune says, there are still other ethical warning signs such as the fact that filmmakers with connections to Emanuel’s brother, Ari, directed the series. Implying impropriety in Chicago while possibly exercising impropriety in documentary filmmaking calls into questions the judgment of  how a news network like CNN represented the series to viewers.

Update (5.1.2014)

As the series’ producers point out, this conversation is much bigger than one series.

“It’s about the evolution of journalism and the way authentic stories are told in the 21st century,” said Sarah Sherman of Brick City TV, the company that produced Chicagoland.

Sherman points to some of the several other conversations the series, and the way it came together, have sparked in local Chicago media, including a segment on pubic television station WTTW’s Chicago Tonight program featuring Craig Duff of Northwestern University and Jeffery Spitz of Columbia College.

Mark Levin, executive producer of Chicagoland, speaking on WBEZ-FM, responded to a question as to whether the program was “staged,” responded, “That’s ridiculous.”  Levin went on to explain that the very nature of producing a requires coordination, in this case with city hall.  “That’s… what we do. You don’t just walk into the mayor’s office … and start filming.”

Chicagoland aired eight weekly broadcasts, which premiered in late January and ended in April. Videos from the series can be viewed here.

[Image: CNN]

Malaysian airlines story leads to speculative reports

Recent news coverage of the missing Malaysian airlines flight has led some to question the media’s role in the crisis. Although ample coverage of the missing plan exists, it’s still unclear exactly what happened to the plane and its hundreds of passengers, including a couple Americans. Not even the highest ranked experts have come up with a conclusive and proven story yet.

Nonetheless, journalists and the media want answers. Countless stories, reports and special releases have been floating around for weeks. But some are now questioning the ethics behind the Malaysian airlines reports because of the nature of the story’s coverage, and the decision of journalists to  use unknown information.

Seemingly meaningless details of the flight now carry great importance for journalists. For example, some journalists have tried to dissect the pilot’s final words, “all right, good night,” citing the phrase as the last known contact with the plane. What could this cryptic ending mean? journalists asked.

But pilots say things like that all the time, and the phrase may not mean much – if anything – in the search for the plane. Yet CNN wrote a story on the subject when the Malaysian government released new information saying the last words of the plane were in fact “Goodnight Malaysian three seven zero.” Journalists crafted stories as to why the Malaysian government “lied” before, implying the new report was a significant, hidden clue.

Similarly, other members of the media have also become fixated on the fact some of the passengers’ cell phones were still ringing. Although a minor detail, the status of the passengers’ phones also became a critical part of the story and served as rationale as to why the plane was or wasn’t still out there.

There are numerous speculations and theories about the status of the plane. According to Poynter, who wrote a column criticizing the reports of journalists, some of the theories out there are that the plane made an emergency landing, is in North Korea, was hijacked by Iranian terrorists. Is there a strong factual basis for any of these theories? The answer is most likely no. Yet news outlets in their constant search for new developments try to obtain the most information they can.

Patrick Smith, an airline pilot and blogger discussed some factual errors made by media covering the story in a recent blog post. Although USA Today claimed in one report that the pilot had full responsibility for flying off course, Smith says any journalist who had done their homework would know there are always two pilots on board.

These examples and others suggest that journalists covering the Malaysian plane incident may have been too focused on manufacturing a story instead of waiting for more information. Finding verified information may make for a less interesting story, but without facts, reporting is reduced to speculation and rumors.

[photo credit: AP/Daniel Chan]