Thoughts on Professor Dan Kennedy’s in-class residency

During the few weeks of this semester that our class got to spend with Professor Kennedy, we were exposed to a multitude of different ethical discussions and dilemmas, not the least of which was the 2016 presidential election. We discussed such interesting topics as social media and Facebook’s controversial news feed algorithms, relationships with public relations representatives and what is considered on and off the record and the ethical considerations of native advertising/sponsored content. But I wanted to focus on one particular topic to start that we discussed one day in class which was that of what exactly is considered newsworthy and what deserves to be published by major news organizations, versus what is not considered fit for publication.

Professor Kennedy explained one particular case about a rather salacious article that the now defunct Gawker magazine had written about a sex tape celebrity wrestler Hulk Hogan had made with Heather Clem (wife of a man that Professor Kennedy assured us was truly called ‘Bubba the Love Sponge’ legally) that they had received. By publishing the sex tape, Hogan alleged that the publication had constituted a major invasion of privacy, and set about suing Gawker Media for damages. He eventually won the lawsuit, but it was not without the backing of billionaire co-founder of PayPal Peter Thiel, who already had a bone to pick as it were with Gawker for publicly outing him as gay in their publication back in 2007. We discussed as a class the following ethical considerations:

  • Did the public have a right to see Hogan’s sex tape, or did he have valid grounds to sue for invasion of privacy?
  • Was Peter Thiel’s backing of the Gawker suit ethical since he did have a contentious relationship with the publication already?
  • Was this story even really newsworthy, or a matter of public concern?

It raised a lot of interesting points, because we seemed to be divided as a class on the third question in particular of whether Hogan’s celebrity status made his sex tape a matter of public concern, or whether it really did not make a difference to the public. We were also conflicted about Thiel’s involvement in the suit – I was ready to condemn his financial backing as pure vengeance, but Professor Kennedy aptly pointed out that what if Thiel had been financing another cause which was significantly more noble than protecting a celebrity wrestler? Was it simply the topic of the suit, or the plaintiff, that caused the media to so readily condemn Thiel for simply paying off the judicial process? After all, Kennedy noted that Gawker was not a saint in this situation – they have printed some pretty scandalous and sometimes downright deplorable articles in the past, and many more people than just Thiel had a right to be angry with Nick Denton’s publication.

Another intriguing and very current topic that we discussed in class one day was the Huntington News’ article about a student who had recently filed a lawsuit against the college for mishandling her sexual assault case. We discussed in-depth particularly the paper’s decision to not print the name of the accused rapist, who is still currently a student at this school. I initially leaned more towards the notion that printing his name, which was a matter of public record in the court documents, would be ethically sound and would help provide some support to the victim who alleged that she had received no justice from BPD, Northeastern University, OSCCR or anyone else thus far. But as we talked more about it, many students made very valid points about the fact that this student had never been charged by the police, had never gone to court or been on trial, and we would simply be taking the victim’s testimony as sole proof that he was the attacker. The paper did reach out to him for comment, which he declined to do but did request that his name not be printed – and the victim too did not demand that the paper print his name. To have printed his name with no concrete police evidence to support that he was involved in the attack would ruin his reputation and most likely his professional life going forward, and what if it was later discovered that he had nothing to do with the attack? As one student pointed out, he was not even involved in the current lawsuit the victim was filing. Here clearly the journalistic principles of compassion and truthful reporting were in tension with each other, and we felt as a class that the paper’s decision to lean more towards compassion was correct. I would now say that I agree with the line of thinking that the paper embraced in choosing to keep him unnamed, especially in light of the recent Rolling Stone lawsuit, because as we have seen it can prove dangerous to rely solely on the victim’s account without fact checking with other sources (discipline of verification).

Northeastern University Election Post-Mortem brings up intriguing ethical issue

Today Northeastern University’s school of journalism held a post-mortem discussion of the 2016 presidential election, discussing Donald Trump’s unexpected assumption of the presidency as well as how the media helped contribute to his rise. Many different themes were discussed, including the extensive media coverage of every Trump and Clinton scandal, sexism against Clinton, lack of in-depth reporting and of course media bias. On that last point, Professor Dan Kennedy brought up an interesting issue which we have discussed before in our ethics class, about the notion of false equivalency.

The idea of false equivalency (false balance) is that the press, in an attempt to seem 100 percent fair and balanced, will attempt to equally report on every issue or in this case both candidates, to show that they have no bias towards either side. The problem with this method is that it causes journalists to give smaller or less important stories more weight just so they can provide equal coverage. Consider the endless media cycle that happened when Clinton stumbled and fainted at the 9/11 memorial in New York back in September. It was a simple stumble but the media was required to speculate for days on end about possible health issues, because they would do the same for a Trump scandal.

It diminishes the integrity of journalism to an extent by attributing a false sense of newsworthiness to a story which under normal circumstances the public would not typically deem as important. Whether this practice actually had a significant effect on the outcome of the election cannot be quantified, but it stands to reason that there was probably at least some influence involved. It was an ethical angle of this election that I had not even considered before, but it’s something I will certainly think deeply about in the days to come.