Pajama Journalism Lacks Standards

Pajama ethics: bear in mind these 4 principles when doing desktop-based reporting

Copyright 2022 by Online Journalism Blog

Image by morgaine CC BY-SA 2.0

“Pajama Journalism”—reports you can do in nightclothes on a computer, without going anywhere or talking to anyone—should not define online news, but the practice is widespread. In a special guest post, Michael Bugeja argues that following just four basic principles of reporting can help improve this form of journalism.

The Internet greatly enhances the ability to assemble a story in record time, using information from social media, blogs and databanks. But while this expansion of access has opened up new prospects for reporting, and increased productivity — it also brings risks to credibility.

The rise of “PJ Journalism” is due to multiple factors. Reporters work in downsized newsrooms with scant travel budgets, if any, and are evaluated by productivity levels. Recently isolation due to COVID-19 has added a further reason for remaining indoors rather than onsite.

This is not to say that “PJ Journalism” is inherently bad, if you view the digital world as having its own reality apart from the physical world. Stories about the Dark Web would be one extreme example of this, but you could also argue that newsworthy statements and discussions which would have previously taken place in the physical world now increasingly take place entirely on social media and other virtual spaces.

I teach media ethics at Iowa State University and decided last month to do a session on “PJ Journalism” to illustrate shortcomings in rushed reports — and how to avoid those.

There are four key dangers that the pajama journalist faces:

  1. Linking issues, failing to cite source content or point to original documents.
  2. Missed opportunities, failing to contact sources for additional information.
  3. Due diligence, failing to note if officials or organizations had been contacted to respond to content.
  4. False impressions, implying the writer was onsite at an incident or event.

Here’s how those dangers can be avoided — demonstrated through deconstructing a CNN article by Theresa Waldrop, titled “Washington State head football coach ousted after refusing Covid-19 vaccine”. It concerns the firing of WSU’s head football coach, Nick Rolovich, and four assistant coaches who failed to comply with the state’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

Links are missing

If you are going to use a computer to assemble content, you owe it to viewers to provide links to original content.

This digital standard was missing in a few instances in our example article.

The lead and following paragraphs use the attribution “said” in reference to a news release, rather than “stated” or “noted” — the preferred terms when you cite an inanimate object, such as an athletic department or news release.

Worse, no link was provided to the news release.

No links are provided either for “a statement” (fifth paragraph), Rolovich’s hiring on Jan. 14, 2020 (accessible here), and while a link is included in the sentence “Earlier Monday, the National Hockey League announced that Evander Kane of the San Jose Sharks has been suspended,” that link opens to another CNN report, not the NHL announcement, which I found here.

The article does include some links: a link is provided for Gov. Jay Inslee’s proclamation requiring full vaccinations for state employees. And a link was provided for his salary.

But here’s where we hit the second item on our checklist…

2: Missed opportunities for contact

Opportunities are missed to approach those in the story

The reporter might have contacted the governor for a quote about Rolovich’s firing. But she leaves it at that.

There’s another missed opportunity for contact when the article references a Twitter statement by Rolovich in which he states that he is not getting the vaccine for “private” reasons.

It ends, “I will not comment further on my decision” – but things change, and a good reporter should check if the person is still refusing to comment or if they have new things to say — as turns out to be the case in this story…

3: Due diligence

He posted that statement on Twitter on July 21, 2021. And he would comment further—initially not whether he got the vaccine—but about his decision not to commentas in this article in the Spokesman-Review.

Rolovich did confirm why he is not getting the vaccine—a fact omitted from Waldrop’s post. USA Today reported on Oct. 9 that he was seeking a religious exemption.

That disclosure would have made the Waldrop report more substantive. So would have a quote from a lawyer or theologian. 

4: Avoid false impressions

The video of the conference could have been linked here – or even embedded

A more serious omission comes in the last five paragraphs, featuring quotes from Rolovich about his situation: no link is provided, implying the reporter was at the postgame interview where those comments were made.

This is an unintentional oversight, but everyday viewers might not realize that.

You can hear the Rolovich quotes in this YouTube video of that news conference.

Embedding the video would have not only avoided this — it would have provided a more valuable and engaging article, potentially increasing the amount of time readers spent on the story.

All too often these lapses are found in reports by cable news sites disseminated by wire services and reaching multitudes. Little is added by way of context—including whether additional information might be forthcoming—and then updating accordingly. Quotations are lifted from news conferences or on-site interviews without reference to source material, as if the writer was at the scene.

Basic standards that make reporting better

It’s important to note that Waldrop’s piece does contain information that viewers would have considered newsworthy. Again, my intent is to show how attention to basic standards—linking, additional information, updates and context—could have enhanced her article.

That used to be the task of copyeditors, eliminated in typical newsrooms. The onus now is on the reporter, which makes this discussion particularly vital.

Instant digital access allows reporters to keep pace with rapidly occurring developments. But the danger here is relying too much on access without the reporting. Eventually, that affects credibility—not only of the outlet but of the platform itself.

Audience Concerns

Image by nataliej CC BY-NC 2.0

In a recent piece for Poynter, I wrote how Americans can’t tell the difference between fact and factoid, assigning political labels to news outlets based on columnists rather than reporters.

I argued for new standards to label opinion and, in some cases, require subscribers to opt-in to get them in newsletters.

Online editors and producers need to rethink what is becoming conventional practice—hurried reports without substantive context or updated information—that parades as quality journalism and is re-distributed as such.

Keep in mind that viewers (not to mention the competition) also question such reports, especially if content seems political, divisive or controversial. That’s when posts can be called out, often by what they omit as opposed to what they state.

We can apply higher standards with links to original content; additional quotations via phone, email or text; notations about whether new information is forthcoming and when; and transparency, attribution and links to actual conversations, without any semblance that a reporter was on the spot.

These simple practices will build trust and add value, especially since links to original content help SEO for an outlet. Moreover, updated information will be re-tweeted and shared, again enhancing credibility.

In the end, standards aside, rushed journalism is still news to many. But we are advocating here for reports that have an extra dimension. A few hours to contact sources via text, email or phone call is not too much to ask. Neither is a bit more effort to verify data or add context.

The public deserves better, and we can easily provide it with online tools.

How we got from there to here and what comes hereafter

Journalism educators and editors must accept these hard truths and teach these new realities to our undergraduates.

Newspapers are discarded in a recycling bin at the Hoboken train terminal, Friday, March 4, 2016, in Hoboken, N.J. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

By: Michael Bugeja

In 2010, in a piece for Inside Higher Education, I wrote the following: “Without editors monitoring political campaigns, voting rights would be trampled and elections, routinely rigged. Candidates wouldn’t run for office; they’d purchase it.”

It was one of the many pieces I have written over the years as I documented the decline of the newspaper industry and the forces that factored into that.

Because of that work, I have some ideas for leaders to implement. Here’s the history and here’s what we can do about it.

For the rest of the article, visit: https://www.poynter.org/educators-students/2022/how-we-got-from-there-to-here-and-what-comes-hereafter/

Debate about use of “Dr.” disrespects expertise, fuels distrust of science

MICHAEL BUGEJA, IOWA CAPITAL DISPATCH

 First lady Jill Biden applauds National Teacher of the Year Juliana Urtubey, left, during an event Oct. 18, 2021, on the South Lawn of the White House. (Official White House photo by Erin Scott)

Jill Biden, educator and first lady, and I share the same nickname with students: “Dr. B.” We both have terminal degrees, hers an Ed.D. in educational leadership from the University of Delaware and I, a Ph.D. in English from Oklahoma State University.

I’m called “Dr. B” because my students have a difficult time pronouncing my Maltese name (Boo-JAY-ah).

The comparison ends there. Like tens of thousands of professors, Biden values education and the rigor required to earn a doctorate from a research institution.

Some cultural critics disagree.

Writer Joseph Epstein published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on Dec. 11, 2020, titled: “Is There a Doctor in the White House? Not if You Need an M.D.” Its subtitle read: “Jill Biden should think about dropping the honorific, which feels fraudulent, even comic.”

Epstein’s credentials include a bachelor’s degree and honorary doctorate.

His point in dissing Biden’s 2007 doctorate seems to be the degree isn’t what it used to be.

Requirements in his day at Columbia University were so demanding, he opines, especially during oral examinations, that a secretary sat outside the room with a water pitcher and glass in case anyone fainted from interrogation.

Epstein mocked Biden’s education doctorate, addressing her as “kiddo.” (One wonders what he called the secretary.)

Fox TV host Tucker Carlson also denigrated Biden’s credentials, stating she is a doctor “in the same sense as Dr. Pepper.”

The debate over Biden’s degree reignited recently when celebrity doctor and television personality, Mehmet Cengiz Öz (“Dr. Oz”), and longtime New Jersey resident, entered the Pennsylvania U.S. Senate race to replace the retiring GOP Sen. Pat Toomey

Öz earned a bachelor’s degree from Harvard and a doctor of medicine degree from the University of Pennsylvania — stellar credentials. But he also has been criticized for promoting quack and/or unproven remedies on his “Dr. Oz” show.

A scathing commentary in Missouri Medicine, published by the state’s medical association, cited his scientific achievements as well as his televised foibles, stating: “Simply put, Oz is an entertainer. Many believe he is doing great harm by preventing or delaying proper diagnosis, providing false hope, and encouraging people to waste money on useless treatments.”

The question —“Who is and isn’t a real doctor?”— arose anew after the Philadelphia Inquirer was criticized for using “Dr.” on first reference to Öz in a headline and caption, violating its own style guide, which states:

“Do not use Dr. on first reference for anyone with the title, whether they are a medical doctor or have a doctorate in a nonmedical field, to avoid complaints of unequal treatment from individuals who worked hard to achieve doctorates in nonmedical fields.”

Subsequently, the newspaper ran an op-ed announcing on first reference that “Dr. Mehmet Oz might be disappointed to learn that some news sites will not be using his honorific during his political campaign.”

(Did you catch that? It just violated its own style guide.)

After the commentary ran, Öz alleged the Inquirer was trying to cancel him.

Fact is, news organizations have different styles for use of the “Dr.” term. For instance, CNN’s style guide states that “Dr.” is used only for medical doctors, osteopaths, dentists, ophthalmologists, psychiatrists and veterinarians. “Dr.” is not used for Ph.Ds. or similar degrees or for honorary titles.

The Associated Press stylebook has a similar distinction, reserving use of “Dr.” in first reference for individuals who hold a doctor of dental surgery, medicine, optometry, osteopathic medicine, podiatric medicine, or veterinary medicine.

If context calls for use of the term, for individuals who hold other types of terminal degrees, AP requires the person’s academic discipline be cited in the next reference.

I find these distinctions confusing. For instance, how should CNN, AP and Inquirer refer on first reference to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King? To omit the term would be disrespectful.

As a professor, I have strong views, believing “Dr.” or “Professor” should be used by students in any reference verbally, orally, socially or formally. The cultural debate as argued by Epstein and Carlson exhibit contempt for those who have contributed to letters and science.

That argument was explored in “Please Call Me Doctor,” published in Scientific Americanone of the world’s premiere journals. Beth S. Linas, an epidemiologist, writes:

“By abiding by the AP rule, news organizations are failing to create a more informed public. Further, they stand to create potential harm to the scientific method and to the individuals who dedicate their lives to acquiring expertise and advancing science and policy.” Editor’s note: Iowa Capital Dispatch adheres to AP style on the use of honorifics.

Linas argues that earning a doctor of philosophy degree requires deep expertise involving data collection, statistical analysis, oral and written exams, a book-length dissertation, presentations at conferences, and later publishing in peer-reviewed journals.

“By refusing to use the titles scientists have earned,” she states, “news outlets contribute to the delegitimization of expertise.”

She is right. Microbiologists doing disease research also save lives, just as medical doctors do. Soil scientists and agronomists help farmers grow crops to feed the populace. That saves lives, too. Colleagues in engineering and the social sciences write grant-driven research that saves lives.

To borrow a line from the “Dead Poet’s Society,” medicine and other disciplines are necessary to sustain life: “But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”

Hurray for the arts and humanities.

If we continue to disrespect education, Americans to their own detriment will believe conspiracy theories, denounce fact and distrust science.

That irony already has played out in the pandemic during which millions disparaged medical doctors, including Öz, who urge vaccination as well as wearing masks to prevent infection.

That doesn’t save lives. It costs them.REPUBLISH

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Michael Bugeja

MICHAEL BUGEJA

Michael Bugeja is the author of “Living Media Ethics” (Routledge/Taylor & Francis) and “Interpersonal Divide in the Age of the Machine” (Oxford Univ. Press). He is a regular contributor to Iowa Capital Dispatch and is writing a series of columns on the topic of “Living Ethics.”MORE FROM AUTHOR

Political sectarianism fuels vaccine resistance

A group of people holding signs

Description automatically generated with medium confidence
Protesters gather at a March for Freedom rally demonstrating against the Los Angeles City Council’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for city employees and contractors on Nov. 8, 2021. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

By Michael Bugeja copyright 2021 Iowa Capital Dispatch

Protesters gather at a March for Freedom rally demonstrating against the Los Angeles City Council’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for city employees and contractors on Nov. 8, 2021. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Emotional intelligence is the ability to fathom our feelings so as to reduce stress, enhance reasoning and perceive emotions in ourselves and others so as to enhance awareness and mental well-being.

The ability to process emotions has many benefits. We can interact prudently and mindfully with others, communicating effectively, overcoming challenges and defusing conflict.

The global pandemic requires such intelligence. We should empathize with others who have succumbed to coronavirus and its variants.

Those who received the vaccine have overcome one of the biggest challenges of the century.

But partisan politics and conspiracy theories, often promulgated by social media, have done little to defuse conflict.

The opposite of emotional intelligence is sectarianism, which has become “especially acrimonious in the United States,” according to a study published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Sectarianism is defined as political polarization driven by the urge to dominate and revile supporters of the opposing party.

Unlike emotional intelligence, sectarianism increases stress, triggers imprudent or even dangerous actions, and uses communication as a weapon, especially on social media.

As such, sectarianism does little to overcome challenges or defuse conflicts.

To practice emotional intelligence, we have to take inventory of our deepest desires, fears, beliefs and values.

Ask yourself, what do you wish more than anything in life? What prospect terrifies you the most? What are your convictions about political parties or policies? What moral principles do you embrace without question?

If you answer those questions, chances are you will not succumb to those who would mislead and manipulate you. They analyze your emotions and set a plan in motion to deceive you.

If you desire upward mobility, you can enhance your work ethic via mindfulness or fall prey to scammers with get-rich schemes. If you fear loss of employment, you can improve your skill sets or blame company policies for your shortcomings.

Political sectarians transform neighbors, friends and even relatives into godless socialists or ignorant fascists.

Kitchen debates, especially on holidays, can be disconcerting. When it comes to social media, we can unfriend those who disagree with us. And while that is generally unharmful, sectarianism in the time of pandemic can be lethal.

A computer engineering study, titled “Does social media misinformation cause vaccine hesitancy?,” identified a large anti-vaccine community on Twitter. Users relied on the platform to spread disinformation and conspiracies suggesting vaccines are unsafe or ineffective.

Another study, “The Anti-Vaccination Infodemic on Social Media,” noted that vaccinations are “one of the greatest achievements of modern medicine,” offering humanity a solution to halt the COVID-19 pandemic. That goal was undermined by the anti-vaccination movement spreading misinformation about safety. The study analyzed behavior on Twitter and found anti-vaxxers used emotionally charged language to dissuade others from being inoculated.

The same result was occurring on other platforms, including Instagram. When such tweets and posts were banned, anti-vaxxers developed their own coded language to circumvent monitors.

Instead of using hashtags like “#vaccineskill,” they used “abstruse hashtags like #learntherisk and #justasking.” They also spelled “vaccines with cedillas, “vaççines,” or modified spelling with brackets and parentheses, such as “va((ines.”

Because of social media crackdowns, NBC News reported that anti-vaxxers targeted local media. Whether on Twitter, Instagram or network TV affiliates, the goal was the same — information laundering.

Whitney Phillips, an assistant professor at Syracuse University, who studies media manipulation, notes: “If you make a harmful position sound reasonable, then more people who would otherwise not be inclined to believe it, might be willing to look at it as an issue with two sides.”

National news has been featuring anti-vaxxers who contracted coronavirus recanting previous beliefs and begging doctors too late for inoculations on their death beds.

This scenario has played out before in America, as early as 1721. James Franklin, older brother of Benjamin and publisher of The New England Courant, attacked an early type of smallpox inoculation called variolation —inserting into a recipient a minute amount from an infected person. The ensuing disease often would be milder and death, in most cases, averted.

The Courant attacked the procedure and attributed smallpox “as Judgments from an angry and displeased God.”

Benjamin Franklin came to the opposite conclusion, using emotional intelligence to keep an open and independent mind.

Despite his belief in inoculation, Franklin still experienced the loss of his 4-year-old son Francis to the disease. Francis was scheduled to be inoculated but suffered from a spell of diarrhea. Franklin had thought it best to wait until the symptoms passed. By then, though, his son contracted smallpox naturally and passed away.

Rumors spread that Francis died from the smallpox inoculation.

For the rest of this life, Franklin bitterly regretted not getting the inoculation earlier. He confessed that in his 1771 autobiography, clearing the air about the rumor so that others would not be deterred.

“I do hereby sincerely declare, that [Francis] was not inoculated, but receiv’d the Distemper in the common Way of Infection,” Franklin wrote. “Inoculation was a safe and beneficial Practice … and that I intended to have my Child inoculated, as soon as he should have recovered sufficient Strength.”

To this day, Franklin is revered as a scientist and patriot. Perhaps others can heed his message and get the vaccine.

MICHAEL BUGEJA

Michael Bugeja is the author of “Living Media Ethics” (Routledge/Taylor & Francis) and “Interpersonal Divide in the Age of the Machine” (Oxford Univ. Press). He is a regular contributor to Iowa Capital Dispatch and is writing a series of columns on the topic of “Living Ethics.”

MORE FROM AUTHOR

Hoaxes and scams take an emotional toll

Michael Bugeja

MICHAEL BUGEJA, IOWA CAPITAL DISPATCH

The cost of internet scams and hoaxes isn’t limited to money. (Photo by Michael Geiger via Unsplash)

Countless people have lost millions of dollars to online hoaxes and scams, but the biggest collective loss concerns trust. Losing trust hurts us more than money ever could.

Internet deceptions afflict everyone, from a child awaiting a pet to a pensioner awaiting a Social Security check.

Let’s deal with pets first, as these scams have become prevalent during the pandemic.

 Freya, pictured here at 12 weeks, is a Maine Coon purchased from an Iowa breeder registered at The International Cat Association (TICA) and Cat Fanciers’ Association (CFA). (Photo by Michael Bugeja)

Many people, including me, wanted a kitten or puppy to help alleviate the stress of working at home. Unbeknownst to us, there are hundreds of fraudulent websites that prey upon your longing for that perfect pedigreed pet.

For instance, I wanted a Maine Coon but was almost taken in by scams.

Maine Coons, the largest cat breed, are highly desirable and typically go for between $1,500-$4,000. Often there is a waiting list with non-refundable deposits.

Internet has acclimated us to get anything we want on demand, and so many fall for these scams.

When you google “Maine Coon Kittens for Sale,” or crowdsource for them on Facebook, you will get hundreds of websites with adorable pets that somehow have not been reserved, selling for bottom-basement prices.

Here’s a screenshot of a scam site. (All pet scams use the same methods.)

 Screen shot of an internet site claiming to sell pedigreed kittens.

Those photos featured here are likely pilfered from reputable breeders registered with the International Cat Association or Cat Fanciers’ Association. The kittens would cost thousands. But wait — there’s a sale on this site! You can get these gorgeous cats for $400 apiece.

If you click on “Buy Now,” you won’t be able to telephone this breeder. Everything will be done online through their websites. But wait — there’s more! You’ll get your kitten with a half-price shipping rate of a few hundred dollars.

It’s a bargain, and your pet will be shipped immediately.

You’ll be asked to pay via Venmo or Zelle or other pay site. As soon as you hit “send,” your money is lost.

By now you and perhaps your children have invested emotionally in a particular pet. You have become a prime target for more deception.

Here’s what comes next. You will be asked to cover boarding fees. Perhaps the pet has missed its flight or became ill and now you must pay for a ventilated cage as well as vet fees. And if you refuse, threats about pet abandonment and legal costs follow.

You will never get the kitten or pup.

These sites are so numerous that as soon as you report one to the website hosting company, the scammer simply creates another site with a new name and same script.

How to spot a scam

To check if you are dealing with a scammer, go to the “About” tab of the site. Select and copy a suspect sentence that does not sound quite right — perhaps one with an awkward word or seldom-used phrase. Then paste that suspicious sentence onto an internet search engine.

If it is a scam, you will see multiple websites with the same sentence, all offering kittens depicted with different backgrounds (because photos are stolen various from legitimate breeders).

Other popular scams include fake Amazon charges, Social Security/IRS violations, and internet/telephone service refunds.

No matter the con, fraudsters often read from the same script.

Case in point: IRS scammers will state that you were audited and must pay penalties with gift cards or face jail time.

The scam has been so successful that the IRS has a video about it.

But this is just one of thousands of scams that most of us deal with or ignore daily. The AARP reports up to 150 million illicit calls per month.

Hoaxes do as much damage as scams. Those are associated with mainstream and social media and prey upon our fears, beliefs, and values. Here are common ones:

  • Fear of a certain ethnic, social-class or political group.
  • Belief that people who look different are inherently immoral, moral, unintelligent or intelligent.
  • Belief in or skepticism about the paranormal.
  • Conviction about a political party, candidate, religious deity, etc.

Hoaxsters typically persuade us to take action by affirming our fears or validating our biases. And in an age of deep fakesvoice cloning and conspiracies, we just might take the bait and base life choices on falsehoods.

Dealing with emotional fallout

The outcome is not in squandered funds but in loss of trust and the pervasive feeling that everyone is out to deceive us.

If you fear or suspect being scammed, visit the Federal Trade Commission site about what to do and how to report fraudulent activity.

If you have been scammed, you are likely feeling unhealthy symptoms, including anxiety, shame, depression, fear, insomnia and much more.

There is no government entity to help with that. Restorative practices include forgiving yourself; joining a local support group; confiding in a psychologist, pastor, mentor or trusted partner; and becoming active in your community.

Serving others, especially in volunteering, builds confidence in yourself and trust in others. Often that is the best remedy.

Opinion: Party platforms vs. codes: Living up to our motto

Ethics codes help a company aright itself and restore trust and credibility to its brand. They can do the same for political parties.

By Michael Bugeja, copyright 2021 Des Moines Register

Political parties share beliefs in platforms that often cite ethical values, overshadowed by campaign rhetoric that opponents typically find divisive. State and national Democrats and Republicans should look to business for philosophical principles that affirm unity and civility.

Researching an ethics book, I evaluated codes of about 100 U.S. companies, listing what they promote, prevent and aspire to attain. Here is a synopsis:

1. What Codes Should Promote

  • Ethical conduct, maintaining high consistent standards.
  • Teamwork, collaborating to advance the company’s interests.
  • Quality service and/or production, strengthening the brand.
  • Problem-solving, resolving issues via shared values.
  • Trust, treating others fairly, respectfully and responsibly.
  • Proactivity, anticipating problems before they occur.

2. What Codes Should Prevent

  • Temptation, taking shortcuts to attain goals.
  • Deception, cheating to attain goals.
  • Bias, treating others unfairly based on race, gender, class, or religion.
  • Self-gain, using company resources for personal benefits.

3. Values Found in Most Codes

  • Truth, promoting products and services accurately and professionally.
  • Accountability, relating to decisions and behavior.
  • Respect, promoting tolerance of honest differences of opinion.
  • Fairness, a process of continual improvement.
  • Diversity, embracing equity and inclusion.

Those values still can be found in some of the top, most ethical companies, as identified by “The World’s Most Ethical Companies 2021” (Links to an external site.) list.Virtually all of the above standards are embraced by 3M corporation, whose ethics code reminds (Links to an external site.) employees to “Be Good,” “Be Honest,” “Be Fair,” “Be Loyal,” “Be Accurate,” “Be Respectful.”

All of the above standards can be found in Sony Group’s 18-page ethics code (Links to an external site.). All officers and employees are required to uphold “Fairness,” “Honesty,” “Integrity,” “Respect,” and “Responsibility.”

Iowa’s Principal Financial Group’s 20-page ethics code (Links to an external site.) emphasizes “Integrity,” “Diversity” and “Fairness,” among other standards. Of particular note is its section on “Conflicts of Interest,” warning about “situations that may create, or even appear to create, a conflict between personal interests and the interests of the Company.”Certainly, these companies have experienced past crises purportedly in violation of standards. For instance, a former 3M employee alleged the company knew about chemical hazards (Links to an external site.) in one of its products, ScotchGard, believed to have contaminated drinking water. In 2018, the company agreed to pay $850 million to settle a lawsuit (Links to an external site.) filed by Minnesota.

In light of such lawsuits, ethics codes help a company aright itself and restore trust and credibility to its brand.

They can do the same for political parties in the wake of lost popularity, elections or reputation.

What are Iowa's values?

To be sure, political charters and planks cite important ethical concepts. For instance, a section on ethics appears in Article 1, Section 7 of “The Charter of the Bylaws of the Democratic Party of the United States” (Links to an external site.):

Encourage and support codes of political ethics that embody substantive rules of ethical guidance for public officials and employees in federal, state and local governments, to assure that public officials shall at all times conduct themselves in a manner that reflects creditably upon the office they serve, shall not use their office to gain special privileges and benefits and shall refrain from acting in their official capacities when their independence of judgement would be adversely affected by personal interest or duties.

The Republican Party supports (Links to an external site.) policies that honor liberty, prosperity and preservation of “American values and traditions.” Historically, this has meant such concepts as individualism, social mobility, directness and work ethic (Links to an external site.).

At the state level, the Democratic and Republican platforms are specific when it comes to their political agendas.Democrats’ core concepts (Links to an external site.) include support of equality, civil rights, education, elderly care, healthcare, family farms, clean environment, military, veterans, social justice, prosperity and right to privacy, among other tenets.  

Republican core concepts (Links to an external site.) include support of equal rights, accountability, sanctity of life, family values, First and Second Amendments, freedom of conscience, military, veterans, free enterprise, balanced budgets and fiscal responsibility, among other tenets. 

Both platforms contain stances that many in the opposite camp would oppose. For instance, Iowa Democrats would restrict silencers on assault weapons as well as bump-stocks, high-capacity-magazines and fragmentary rounds. Republicans support repeal of any existing laws that infringe on Second Amendment rights to bear arms.

But both parties also share core beliefs, including support of military, veterans, equal rights, prosperity and responsibility.

Party platforms are not ethics codes, and shouldn’t be. They inform Iowa voters about various stances on local, state and national issues. But political parties might take a page from business and devise standard codes of conduct that embrace such tenets as truth, trust, fairness, diversity and civility, without the political rhetoric.

Such codes can help the party and its constituents restore credibility in the wake of lost elections, waning popularity, internal factions and external scandals. 

Ethical values not only would inform future platforms but also be a guide for Americans to come together in the spirit of E Pluribus Unum (“Out of Many, One”), conceived in 1776 as the motto of our first Great Seal and a reminder of what it really means to be American.

Michael Bugeja

Michael Bugeja is a distinguished professor of journalism at Iowa State University. He is the author of “Living Media Ethics” (Routledge/Taylor & Francis). These views are his own.

How can we keep our composure when everyone is so angry?

MICHAEL BUGEJA

 Everyone seems to be angry these days, but maintaining composure can help calm people around us. (Photo by Priscilla Du Preez via Unsplash)

Everyone seems angry, cheated, entitled, resentful, deprived — new American norms afflicting every walk of life — from viral Karens and road-raging Kens to berserker travelers and conspiratorial lawmakers.

What has happened to Americans in the past decade?

Many blame fake news. Others, social media. And some say we’re responding psychologically to real depredation and disenfranchisement.

Whatever the cause, many of us seem to lack composure. Simply defined, composure is a feeling of calmness in the wake of criticism or crisis, knowing we have the wherewithal to handle any situation that might arise.

Life is difficult enough without coronavirus. Wearing masks is sensible and essential. But that has triggered all manner of rebellion, covering the mouth and shrouding identity when many of us want to air complaints.

A New York Times article, “The March of the Karens,” associates that name with “a type of interfering, hectoring white woman, the self-appointed hall monitor unloosed on the world,” demanding to speak to police for trivial or imaginary transgressions.

There is no consensus about the name of the male version of Karen, although “Ken” is gaining traction. He is described as an entitled snob, never satisfied with anything, “a jerk to the waiting staff, who always wants to speak to the manager.”

The Times article makes a salient observation. A Karen or Ken “has only words as weapons, and those words no longer hold as much power as they once did.” As a result, they resort to people with real power to enforce their wishes, and they resist.”

That enrages them.

Pandemic pique, road rage

A biting rebuke of this reaction is Late Show host Stephen Colbert’s satiric rendering of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” with the theme changed to “I’m begging you, please just wear a mask.”

Masks have sparked a rise in unruly airline passengers, with the Federal Aviation Administration levying more than $1 million in fines. Between January and August 2021, the FAA logged 3,889 reports of unruly behavior, “nearly three-fourths of which were passengers who allegedly refused to comply with the federal face mask mandate in airports and on airplanes.”

Anger doesn’t abate when traveling in cars and trucks, with or without masks. In the past seven years, some 12,610 injuries and 218 murders have been attributed to road rage. A statistical report attributes causes to drunk driving, mental breakdowns and emotional strain.

Political angst

Americans are feeling emotional strain because of partisan politics. According to Science Daily, “Nearly 40% of Americans surveyed for a new study said politics is stressing them out, and 4% — the equivalent of 10 million U.S. adults — reported suicidal thoughts related to politics.”

A 2016 report by the Pew Research Center found for the first time since 1992, majorities in both parties express not just unfavorable but very unfavorable views of the other party.” Some 55% of Democrats are afraid of Republicans and 49% of Republicans are afraid of Democrats.

An article in Psychology Today titled “The Politics of Fear” explains how politicians use that emotion to divide us, often with the media’s help. “Fear is a very strong tool that can blur humans’ logic and change their behavior.”

Americans were fearful before the pandemic. Fear is at its zenith. An article in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders notes that fear is a normal response to the presence of danger. “However, when threat is uncertain and continuous, as in the current coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, fear can become chronic and burdensome.”

We see segments regularly on the news. Fear is at the heart of rage in stores, cars, planes, and on the floor of Congress. Everyone wants to speak their mind no matter whom it hurts or offends.

As Benjamin Franklin once observed, “Thinking aloud is a habit which is responsible for most of mankind’s misery.”

The solution: composure

The antidote is composure. There is a dearth of it at the moment, but it is not yet dead.

Forbes published a useful article about how to maintain composure during difficult times. Here are recommendations:

  • Do not take things personally, allowing emotions to dominate your day.
  • Keep a positive mental attitude and project confidence in everyday activities.
  • Act decisively when situations warrant but also be accountable for your actions.
  • Remain calm in crises. Speak less. Listen more.

Those are easy to remember but hard to practice. But the more you do, the more others will heed and model that behavior, especially at the workplace.

To effect this, Franklin practiced a daily routine. When he awoke each morning, he envisioned the good he would do in the world. When he went to bed each night, he reflected on how well he lived up to his intentions.

For better or worse, all of us wear the mask of moral character that no cloth covering can conceal. Composure reflects that character, enabling you to rise above the daily vexations that plague us.REPUBLISH

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Michael Bugeja

MICHAEL BUGEJA

Michael Bugeja is the author of “Living Media Ethics” (Routledge/Taylor & Francis) and “Interpersonal Divide in the Age of the Machine” (Oxford Univ. Press). He is a regular contributor to Iowa Capital Dispatch and is writing a series of columns on the topic of “Living Ethics.”MORE FROM AUTHOR

READ BEFORE YOU RETWEET

Iowa Republican U.S. Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks shared a tweet from a parody site that President Joe Biden was withholding health benefits from unvaccinated veterans.

Miller-Meeks retweeted the bogus story from www.delawareohionews.com, adding “If true, this is insane!”

She justified the retweet with this statement:

“I retweeted a story about President Biden requiring the VA to withhold benefits from unvaccinated veterans, saying ‘if true, this is insane.’ The story and website is obviously satire and makes a powerful point. President Biden’s executive orders about COVID-19 have been classic examples of government overreach and these days the unbelievable has become reality.”

The parody included fake quotes attributed to Biden:

“You are willing to fight and die for your country. You are willing to take a bullet in the head for next to nothing. Get blown to bits over in Afghanistan. But you won’t let us pump some mRNA molecules into your arm?” the president continued. “It’s time to get real. Some of you are behaving like some real wise guys here, some real dummies. Wiseguy dumb-dumb boys, as my father used to say. Enough is enough. So sit down and get the dang shot. Do what we tell you to do and continue your service to this great country. Or go without your healthcare benefits. The choice is yours.” 

Delaware Ohio News warns viewers that everything “on this website is made up.” Nevertheless, people mistook the report for real news, expressing their disgust with the phony veterans vaccination decision. Here’s a screenshot:

This story emerged on the day an article by Michael Bugeja appeared on the Poynter news site about Americans being unable anymore to tell the difference between news and opinion.

A Media Insight Project survey found only 43% of respondents being able to easily sort news from opinion in online-only news or social media. They were more confident differentiating news from opinion in local TV news, “which usually contains no formal commentary.” Even when a news publisher labeled opinion as such, many people still could not tell the difference.

Bugeja discussed the Miller Meeks retweet with ABC News affiliate WOI television.https://www.youtube.com/embed/MSQq1qgMjxw?version=3&rel=1&showsearch=0&showinfo=1&iv_load_policy=1&fs=1&hl=en&autohide=2&wmode=transparent

In the interview I warned, “Read before you retweet!” Any person with a constituency has an added obligation to check the validity of the source before affirming what might turn out to be an embarrassing topic or fake post. Parody takes no prisoners. While Democrats were the target of the parody, the piece ensnared mostly Republicans who believed it to be true.

Opinion: Opt-in to op-eds, a final attempt to distinguish news from opinion

Americans can’t tell the difference between fact and factoid and assign political labels to news outlets based on columnists rather than reporters.

(Shutterstock)

By: Michael Bugeja

The New York Times deploys 1,700 journalists in 160 countries “to bear witness and hold power to account.”

Founded in 1851, the newspaper rose in prestige through the decades, beginning with coverage of the Titanic in 1912 and continuing with publication of The Pentagon Papers in 1971, changing the course of history and helping establish First Amendment freedoms in the process.

In 1913, librarians designated the Times as “the newspaper of record” because it indexed stories. The newspaper has won 132 Pulitzer Prizes, more than any other outlet, with its first for public service in 1918 — publishing full texts of official World War I records.

As of August 2021, the Times listed 16 op-ed columnists, including Maureen Dowd, Thomas L. Friedman and Paul Krugman.

Arguably, these and other columnists have shaped the newspaper’s reputation as much as the phalanx of reporters on the ground around the world, with many Americans still believing the Times is a bastion of liberal thought.

Media Bias/Fact Check rates the newspaper as moderately left of center, with highly factual reporting “considered one of the most reliable sources for news information due to proper sourcing and well-respected journalists/editors.” The analysis did find false claims in reportage with timely corrections made as soon as new information was available. Further, the site adds, “failed fact checks occurred on Op-Ed pages and not straight news reporting.”

The Times also was noted for its efforts on impartiality. For years it hired independent public editors to address newsroom bias. In “Why Readers See The Times as Liberal,” Liz Spayd, the sixth and last public editor, recommended “leaving editorials on the editorial page, banning campaign ads from the home page,” and diversifying political values in the newsroom.

A year later, the Times eliminated her position.

In her last report, “The Public Editor Signs Off,” Spayd wrote:

Having the role was a sign of institutional integrity, and losing it sends an ambiguous signal: Is the leadership growing weary of such advice or simply searching for a new model?

I am going to recommend that model — an opt-in newsletter for anyone willing to pay for op-eds. I am focusing on the Times because the newspaper already is moving in that direction. The model works for any major newspaper with a digital website.

Fact or factoid?

Many Americans do not know the difference between news and opinion.

A Media Insight Project survey found only 43% of respondents being able to easily sort news from opinion in online-only news or social media. They were more confident differentiating news from opinion in local TV news, “which usually contains no formal commentary.” Even when a news publisher labeled opinion as such, many people still could not tell the difference.

In “Opinion, news or editorial? Readers often can’t tell the difference,” Poynter contributor Eliana Miller noted that print media readers typically know what is and isn’t news. “Online, things aren’t so clear. Confusion fuels readers’ complaints that opinions, political agendas and bias are creeping into reporters’ work.”

Miller detailed efforts to delineate news from opinion, such as labeling and page design. She cited an editorial page editor explaining to the audience that op-ed writers are “paid to opine” and a content director videotaping interviews with columnists about their opinions.

All nice. All ineffective.

The situation has become alarming in recent years. A report by the Pew Research Center, “Distinguishing Between Factual and Opinion Statements in the News,” tested people’s ability to “recognize news as factual — something that’s capable of being proved or disproved by objective evidence — or as an opinion that reflects the beliefs and values of whoever expressed it.”

The study found that a majority of Americans could identify three of the five statements as news or opinion. “But this result is only a little better than random guesses. Far fewer Americans got all five correct, and roughly a quarter got most or all wrong.”

Some editors now label op-eds as “Opinion:” (with colon) in the first word of the headline. The New York Times, which retired the term “op-ed” earlier this year, includes the label “guest essay,” as in this recent one with a distinct political viewpoint: “The South’s Republicans Talk About Freedom While People Die.”

That was published on Sept. 6, 2021. The Times front page that day had comprehensive reports on a new abortion law in Texas, COVID-19 deaths, Afghan refugees, a Napoleonic general, and Nicaraguans who fear President Daniel Ortega — hardly content of a left-wing Democratic mouthpiece. But that is precisely what a federal appeals judge believed about the Times and The Washington Post (among others) in a dissenting opinion about an unrelated defamation case.

To combat such stereotypes, some newspapers have taken steps beyond labeling and design considerations. For instance, The San Diego Union-Tribune has a “News vs. Opinion” site, defining a news story, an editorial, a column, an analysis, a letter and an op-ed.

The Chicago Tribune responded last year to reader complaints with a multi-pronged approach, labeling op-eds “Tribune Voices,” developing headline standards for commentary, and revising the design of print pages with all columns in one place.

“Finally,” wrote then editor-in-chief Colin McMahon, “we are experimenting with other callouts we may add as we strive to be as transparent as possible with readers about what we do — particularly amid what is by all accounts a raw and hyperpartisan political environment.”

McMahon stepped down Aug. 10, 2021, “after a challenging 18 months at the helm of Chicago-based Tribune Publishing’s flagship newspaper.”

Every newspaper is experiencing challenging times, in part, because people increasingly do not believe legitimate news. Many Americans associate newsmakers, events—and even the pandemic—with partisan politics.

Consumers get free political news from websites, blogs and social media. That diet has consequences.

It’s time to opt in.

The case for newsletters

The New York Times has three types of email newsletters: briefings, personalized alerts, and subscriber-only. Briefings are free but point to the Times’ paywall. Personalized alerts build viewership in the same manner, attracting people passionate about a topic, writer or trend.

Some 19 out of 50 Times newsletters are now available only to subscribers. Nieman Lab staff writer Sarah Scire quoted Alex Hardiman, chief product officer at the Times, promoting newsletters because they attract people who “are far more likely to pay and to stay.”

Opinion writers reportedly are the anchor of newsletters, incentivizing recruitment and retention of subscribers.

Krugman, in fact, is mentioned as a particularly valuable asset to the newsletter format. You can find his columns in newsletters and on the Times’ digital website.

The Times should make one more adjustment to its model, removing Krugman and other opinion writers from the digital edition and including them only as opt-in newsletter headliners.

No doubt Krugman et. al. would dislike the option as it diminishes influence. That’s the point here. By all means, retain op-ed writers in print editions because readers readily can distinguish viewpoints from news.

This reverses a common marketing strategy that aligns viewpoints of columnists with the perceived psychographics of the target audience. This practice has blurred the line between news and opinion, exacerbated now because some current and former opinion page editors operate as digital engagement editors.

In “It’s time to rethink the opinion section,” media reporter Chris M. Sutcliffe makes the case for change when voices of columnists undermine reportage, often because news outlets promote commentary on social media.

“There is considerable incentive for columnists to be controversial or deliberately strident on some arbitrary issue, because they are rewarded for driving views,” Sutcliffe writes. “That controversy may be good for newspaper businesses in the short-term. However, when it undermines trust in the news side of the house, it undermines the business as a whole.”

In sum, newspapers should adopt all of the methods cited here:

  • Fact-check op-eds and require corrections for any fabrication, half-truth or exaggeration.
  • Survey audiences to see if they can tell the difference between news and opinion.
  • Create stand-alone digital and print pages, defining a news story, an editorial, a column, an analysis, a letter and an op-ed.
  • Clearly label op-eds, using “Opinion:” or “Guest Essay:” as the first words in the headline so that the term also appears in social media links.
  • Revise the design of the website and print page so that columnists are clustered in one place.
  • Hire or assign audience engagement editors with reporter rather than opinion credentials.
  • Consider an opt-in newsletter for op-eds, removing columnists from digital but not print editions.

Society and social media are awash with opinion, and we are paying the price, with people no longer believing in democracy, science and each other. Publishers need to do more so journalism regains its lost allure and people new respect for the demanding, dangerous and yes, impartial, jobs of reporters.

Otherwise, the lack of trust and perceived bias will taint reputations and decimate subscriptions.

Michael Bugeja, distinguished professor of liberal arts and sciences, is author of Interpersonal Divide in the Age of the Machine (Oxford Univ. Press) and Living Media Ethics (Routledge/Taylor & Francis)

How Often Do You Lie? It’s Probably More Than You Think

Michael Bugeja

MICHAEL BUGEJA. Iowa Capital Dispatch

 (Photo by via Unsplash)

This summer, I contributed a chapter on falsehood to an influential book edited by Alex Grech, founding director of the 3CL Foundation. Alex also teaches new media at the University of Malta.

The book’s title puts our global situation in perspective: “Media, Technology and Education in a Post-Truth Society: From Fake News, Datafication and Mass Surveillance to the Death of Trust.”

Fake news involves sources, commentators and journalists disseminating lies. Datafication involves algorithms and social media that affirm preconceptions rather than inform us. Mass surveillance involves covert technologies that mine our data and track us.

Grech and multiple authors document the impact of falsehood on our psyche. “Readers are challenged to question their own role in perpetuating certain narratives and to also understand the lived context of people on all sides of a given debate.”

Catastrophic consequences

In recent years we have lost trust in government, democracy, elections, science, media, vaccines and each other. America’s 600,000 COVID-19 deaths and the Jan. 6 insurrection stand as testament to consequences.

“The Big Lie” typically refers to the claim that former President Trump won the 2020 election in a landslide. He garnered 74 million votes, which eclipsed Barack Obama’s popular vote record; but President Joe Biden did better, with a staggering 81 million votes.

My book chapter, “Fact to Fake: The Media World as It Was and Is Today,” discusses how journalism contributed to big lies, with outlets downsizing newsrooms and investing in partisan “analysts” rather than reporters.

We have not yet lost trust in business, the lifeblood of a capitalist system, providing social mobility, wealth and well-being to millions. Nearly two-thirds of Americans still trust business, conferring to CEOs “a pivotal new role to play in rebuilding public trust in information and bridging the United States’ growing partisan divide.”

Nevertheless, business leaders worry that our culture of lies eventually will undermine capitalism.

According to an Industry Week op-ed, “Living in the Age of the Big Lie,” we face “an era of unprecedented public dishonesty, blurring the lines between fact, opinion and noisy speculation. This is bad for America and American business: Democratic capitalist societies require truth and transparency for their institutions to remain viable.”

Stephen Gold, CEO of the Manufacturers Alliance for Productivity and Innovation, warns that social media lies erode corporate stock value. Worse, he adds, “When people see no moral obligation to be honest, they will use deceit to undermine businesses with policies or practices they oppose.”

Why do people lie?

Typically they do so to avoid embarrassment, escape punishment, spare others of hurt or embarrassment, and avoid confrontation. They also resort to falsehood to benefit financially, personally, romantically and professionally.

For more than 25 years, at Ohio University and later at Iowa State, I surveyed media ethics students about why they lie.

Falsehoods have consequences. Small lies lead to bigger ones; half-truths and exaggeration mislead the public. Details of a lie change with each telling, but the truth remains the same.

Keeping a lying journal

My students keep “a lying journal” with these instructions:

  1. For a period of one week, keep track of all the white lies, half-truths and falsehoods that you say or indicate to others.
    • Under each incident or item, briefly note the immediate, future or possible consequences of the lie.
  2. Keep track of all the white lies, half-truths and falsehoods that others say or indicate to you.
    • Under each incident or item, briefly note the immediate, future or possible consequences of the lie.
  3. Keep track of times when you wanted to tell a white lie, half-truth or falsehood … but caught yourself and told the truth or declined to answer the question (doing so in a polite, discreet or appropriate way).
  4. In your journal, write about what you learned from the exercise.

On average, students underestimate the consequences of their own lies but overreact when they catch others in lies. They tell some 36 lies per week and catch others in lies about 11 times. They are tempted to lie but tell the truth a mere six times per week.

In anonymous comments, students share experiences.

“Throughout the lying exercise,” one student writes, “I realized I lie a lot without even noticing. At first, it was hard to catch myself lying, but as the week went on, I paid more attention to what I was saying and what others were saying to determine if they were lying to me.”

Another student notes, “One thing I learned from this exercise is I do not think about telling a lie before I do. The only reason I caught myself in the last week was because of this exercise. Usually, I would not have stopped and told the truth.”

Take the lying journal challenge and see how often you lie  — face-to-face and digitally — in one week. Then track the consequences of those falsehoods, half-truths, exaggerations and white lies.

You may make important self-discoveries.

We all have the obligation to restore truth in society. Just as little lies eventually lead to bigger ones, small truths lead to significant ones that enhance character and career.