Sure, we know all about falsehoods — fake news, hoaxes, half-truths, exaggerations and so-called “white lies” — and can identify each with little prompting.
Did you know that Politifact has been tracking the top U.S. lies since 2009? Its 2020 “Lie of the Year” involved reports that denied, downplayed or outright fibbed about COVID-19 fatalities.
Americans are told between 10 and 200 lies per day. We believe many of them, perhaps because we overlooked the primary colors of authenticity.
This column will reacquaint you with them. To know them is to practice them.
SUBJECTIVE TRUTH is based on the limits of your perception, feelings, emotions, biases, experiences, etc. It is considered a “truth” because most human beings have critical faculties and can reason with varying grades of awareness. Also, experience can be a great mentor of validity.
OBJECTIVE TRUTH is knowing the limits of your perception, assembling facts from a variety of sources, and seeing the world as it is rather than as you wish it were.
CIVIC VIRTUES are truths that the founders of the United States believed would balance immense freedoms in the Bill of Rights. They include equal opportunity, shared interests, concern for future generations, responsibility, respect for views of others, and conviction no one is above the law.
MORAL RELATIVISM claims that there are no definitive truths because virtues always are pegged to a particular culture or historical period, meaning that no assertion of truth should be believed over another assertion.
MORAL ABSOLUTES purports that some things are clearly right (keeping promises, being respectful and generous) or wrong (lying, stealing, tormenting, humiliating, thinking only of yourself). These truths are not subject to serious ethical debate.
ARCHETYPAL TRUTH is both mythic and personal, revealing “timeless truths about the yearnings, fears, and aspirations common to every individual.” There are two types, one involving the body and the other, the mind:
Peak Experience is a transcendental moment of joy, wonder and elation generating intense bodily sensations.
Epiphany is a moment of sudden and complete clarity or revelation when one’s consciousness seems at one with the universe.
UNIVERSAL TRUTH posits that all moral values can be condensed into a “protonorm” — the sacredness of life — which comprises human dignity, truth and non-violence.
One could write a book about each of those categories. For the sake of brevity, below are summaries.
According to Psychology Today, subjective truth is based on perception and hence occurs entirely in the mind. Conversely, reality exists outside of the mind. “To conflate perception with reality is to reject the Enlightenment and harken back to the Middle Ages.”
Objective truth occurs when our perception aligns with reality. Case in point: Three inmates escaped from their Omaha cell in 1978. Their method was to hone perception. Each time the jailer opened their cell with a key, they drew its perceived dimensions on sheets of paper. When the drawings aligned, they made the key in metal shop. It worked.
For generations, Americans have strived to uphold civic virtues, especially equality. First Lady Abigail Adams admonished her husband John, our second president, to empower women. In 1776 she wrote, “Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”
Moral relativism has its limits. We can state categorically that human beings cannot survive on Mars without space suits. So there.
Moral absolutes have limits, too. Most truths are subjective or contain varying degrees of fact-accuracy. Surveys show truth depends on the circumstances; hence, philosophers espouse “situational ethics.”
Peak experiences and epiphanies are highly personal. Spend time recalling them, from your first kiss or athletic triumph. How did your body react? Epiphanies set your life on a new path. How did your mind react? Perhaps you recognized your soul mate or decided to divorce. If you jot down those moments and turning points, you will discover your deepest held truths.
Finally, there are two polar opposites precepts about truth. One, by the philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), concerns the “categorical imperative,” in which we always must tell the truth, no matter the situation, whom it hurts, or the inevitable consequences.
The other is “inappropriate disclosure,” otherwise known as oversharing, especially on social media, in which users come to regret imparting intimate truths about themselves, family, friends, coworkers and acquaintances.
For better or worse, knowing the various genres of veracity may enable you to detect more lies. You even might become a “truth wizard,” detecting falsehoods at least 80 percent of the time.
Conspiracy theories have grown and continue to multiply as newsrooms downsize and more people rely on social media to fill the void.
This is the belief of Dr. Michael Bugeja, distinguished professor of liberal arts and sciences at the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at Iowa State University.
“Journalism is not dead but on life support. Social media dominates civic, political and familial debate, offering snap judgments to affinity groups,” Bugeja adds in a recent commentary.
Bugeja, an author, scholar, ethicist and journalist, lays much of the blame on the rise in conspiracy theories, at the feet of a news industry that has lost its way.
As use of social media as a news source has risen, the reliance on mainstream balanced journalism has plummeted, according to Bugeja.
In a recent commentary for “Poynter,” a journalism think-tank, Bugeja said: “…conspiracy theories have less to do with breakdowns in social machinery, weaponized politics or reason vs. intuition. Polarization materialized as millions of Americans googled answers from affinity groups, increasing screen time while mainstream media downsized newsrooms.”
As newsrooms have cut back reporting staffs, the need to fill a 24-hour news cycle has increased. However, mainstream media cannot fill the void. So, instead, it is filled by bloggers, social media and affinity groups pushing wild theories.
Newsrooms need to hire more reporters, editors and producers, according to Bugeja, and more clearly delineate their content as objective reporting versus analysis.
He also says that we should require courses in “media and technology literacy” in our schools and he is a strong proponent of non-profit localized news models to supplement mainstream media.
He concludes his Poynter commentary by saying: “We must replenish newsrooms, create more nonprofit outlets and require social media payouts, or conspiracies will continue, eroding what is left of democracy and the public’s ability to differentiate between fact and factoid.”
As students delay or reconsider attending college, academic departments must reinvent themselves. Universities have no other option but to explore immediate remedies. In 2021, the future of higher education looks bleak, with mounting student debt and lower enrollments exacerbated by economic shortfalls due to COVID‐19. That dreary outlook will prevail for years to come if institutions insist on business as usual. What, precisely, is that business?
Ballooning administrative costs. Federal financial data show universities spending less on student instruction—down by 0.7 percent between 2016 and 2018—and more on administration, up by 1.4 percent. Presidential salary remains problematic, rising on average 6 percent, year after year. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni and the Institute for Effective Governance (2017) warn that the rising costs of administration signals “misplaced priorities” undermining academic missions. A report in The New Republic notes how status quo fixes will fail, especially dependence on tuition—in the wake of “massive liabilities, as vacant dormitories, stadiums, and surgery wards collect not income but dust” (Taylor 2020).
Term rather than tenure‐track hires. In 2019, the Wall Street Journal reported that higher education added more than half a million administrators between 1987 and 2012, doubling the numbers relative to academic faculty, and noted that the bloat resulted from federally subsidized tuition, with administrators siphoning funds dedicated to the primary functions of colleges and universities (Hamburger 2019). As a result, those institutions hired fewer full‐time professors, replacing them with nontenured adjuncts earning “paltry wages.” The American Association of University Professors (2018) states that 73 percent of faculties across academic institutions are contingent, “known as adjuncts, postdocs, TAs, non‐tenure‐track faculty, clinical faculty, part‐timers, lecturers, instructors, or non‐senate faculty.” Because adjuncts lack tenure protection, shared governance has eroded, tilting the balance of power to administrators who habitually safeguard the status quo.
Curricular glut. The professoriate also plays a role in increasing numbers of adjuncts. Although academic senates, councils, and unions often bemoan low pay for term faculty, continuing professors grow the curricula without regard to cost, proposing marginal subjects for courses associated with arcane, duplicative subjects. Any new social or pop‐cultural concern is a candidate for a new course, especially if tangentially related to a professor’s research. Worse, tenure and promotion guidelines typically reward course creation. With fewer numbers of tenured faculty, adjuncts teach as many as six classes per semester. Curricular creep is at the heart of tuition increases, budget shortfalls, and legislative distrust. It also is a factor in student debt, as students struggle to comprehend the maze of required courses leading to commencement.
Excessive student amenities. In 2015, Senator Elizabeth Warren bemoaned luxury amenities, from climbing walls to lazy rivers, all of which undermine her goal of debt‐free college attendance. Warren had a point. Often residential living and associated fees, not tuition, are responsible for student debt. Moreover, according to The Atlantic, the United States ranks number one in the world for spending on housing, meals, health care, and transportation, otherwise known as “ancillary services,” averaging about $3,370 per student—“more than three times the average for the developed world” (Ripley 2018). A decade ago, these amenities were added to recruit students who relied on the availability of loans without thinking about the ensuing debt. In 2013, the Brookings Institution was among the first to warn that luxurious perks may enhance well‐being but do little to increase earning potential after graduation.
Failed budget models. In the past, provosts administered the budget as titular heads of the professoriate. Then they got the dual title of executive vice president and delegated more fiscal decisions to deans according to the tenets of responsibility‐centered management. Here’s how the decentralized model typically works. Budgets are pegged to tuition, with revenue generated by student credit hours. That puts departments in competition with one another, duplicating efforts and courses and thus creating a battle for credit hours. As a result, duplication abounds, with course catalogs expanding each year. With this model, you can balance budgets as long as tuition and fees keep rising because costs are passed on to registered students. The longer you keep them in the institution, the better for the budget, explaining why so few students graduate in four years.
Abysmal four‐year graduation rates. Many families are hurting financially due to the pandemic. Others experienced job loss while caring for loved ones who contracted the virus or are disabled with special needs. That has an additional effect on declining enrollments. In sum, many families cannot squirrel away funds for their children’s postsecondary education. A 2020 study of 10,839 college students found that 56 percent of those attending 255 colleges and universities say they no longer can afford tuition (OneClass 2020). Consider their viewpoint in light of lagging graduation rates. Data show that four‐year institutions on average have a 60.4 percent rate and that two‐year institutions have a 31.6 percent rate. A mere 41 percent of students earning bachelor’s degrees graduate within four years. Students who miss that benchmark are liable to drop out of college with massive debt and no degree to show for it.
Misguided alumni/donor relations. Foundation officers and support staff at department, college, and university levels typically focus on two goals: large gifts worth the time investment and new pledges from first‐time donors. They often overlook or minimize the third goal of donor relations: retention. Studies show that modest attention to retention brings extraordinary results. This oversight is indicative of status quo thinking in as much as it takes existing givers for granted.
Reflect, Reorganize, Reinvent
We can’t take anyone for granted anymore, particularly students. Their absence on residential campuses during the pandemic is a stark reminder of our mission. Every remedy must consider their welfare and future. Here are some recommendations.
Critique your strategic plan. It failed. Assess why it did. COVID‐19 was unanticipated, but that is an excuse to maintain the status quo. There will always be unforeseen crises, including Title IX judgments, class action lawsuits, fiscal malfeasance, racial unrest, campus crime, compliance violations, weather‐related disasters, and operational risks (especially ransomware attacks). How will each of these affect constituents? For instance, did your existing plan adequately foresee IT and technology needs during the pandemic, especially for faculty and students? Is your plan ready to confront any unforeseen realities? Tens of thousands of students are expected to delay graduation or drop out of college altogether because of pandemic‐related issues, a fiscal impact anticipated to last as many as six years. What preventive measures are in place to navigate that future or now may need updating in hindsight? How will public information communicate risk and manage reputation before, during, and after a crisis? The best strategic plan is based on adaptability, not aspiration.
Conduct a fiscal audit. Review your budget model and determine how it performed during the pandemic. Is a decentralized model, designed to spur competition in pursuit of credit hours, really the best option in a fiscally challenged climate with declining enrollments? Or is there a more flexible alternative that adjusts to changing circumstances? That used to be the standard decades ago when provosts worked with faculty leaders rather than with deans to cover costs. Put a cap on student amenities and determine whether any existing ones require defunding. Assess administrative allocations and freeze or cut leadership salaries, including athletic directors. Department chairs, deans, and foundation officers must focus on donor relations, with more effort on retaining and developing existing accounts. Create department or college advisory councils, using alumni in assessment efforts, which is important in unit and institution accreditation. Call on donors to provide internships to retain students and prepare them for life after commencement.
Promote advising and retention efforts. Instructors will have more time with fewer students and classes. That also means less grading. Administrators will be tempted to eliminate positions. Professors will be tempted to propose more courses advancing special interests. Instead, use that time to advise and retain students. This is important in community colleges because of the low graduation rates. Advising also is indispensable for incoming and graduating students because of the transition into and out of the institution. One‐on‐one advising, even via Zoom or WebEx, keeps students on track toward graduation. Advising methods can be enhanced to retain and recruit a more diverse student body.
Increase service for term faculty. Adjuncts are not only poorly paid but also frequently lack a voice in academic departments. They are expected to teach, and too often their institutional value ends there. Rather than eliminate term positions due to lower enrollment, tap this resource for committee assignments typically given to continuing professors. Junior faculty usually complain that service detracts from research needed for promotion and tenure. Associate professors in particular are overburdened with service, which is also an impediment to advancement. Adjuncts can help alleviate that burden and be empowered by the process.
Prioritize research for continuing faculty. Allow reduced course loads for tenure‐eligible and tenured faculty. Again, the budgetary temptation will be to cut adjuncts and redistribute their classes to continuing professors. Instead, set new scholarship benchmarks, including grant acquisition at research extensive institutions. Research is a core component of reputation and recruitment. Graduate students in particular vie to work with distinguished professors. National awards, grants, and academy membership are key indicators for inclusion in the Association of American Universities.
Streamline curricula. Administrators should work with faculty senates and councils to review requirements in existing majors, eliminating sequences, tracks, and emphases that never appear on the degree. Often these are silos created by professors, some long since retired, that still remain on the books. Remove as many prerequisites as possible that necessitate that students take one course to qualify for another when no new particular skill is gained. This impedes degree progress and delays graduation. Assess each course to see if it advances innovation or prepares students for advanced study. If not, revise or delete it. Streamlining curricula also simplifies advising, increases retention, and improves graduation rates. Require every first‐year student to work with academic advisers to devise a four‐year plan of study with specific courses.
Align Your Priorities
These recommendations buck the status quo—firing or furloughing adjuncts, redistributing workload to professors, creating aspirational rather than nimble strategic plans, maintaining failed budget models, ignoring administrative bloat and curricular creep, raising tuition and fees, supporting luxury amenities, undervaluing academic advising, and neglecting existing donors and alumni. The prototype for the reinvented institution values everyone, with a primary focus on student learning and affordability.
As demonstrated here, business as usual practices have a domino effect, with one indirectly aggravating another. The aforementioned alternative strategies are aligned for the opposite effect, with each one empowering the next. Institutions that adopt them will emerge from the pandemic with the wherewithal to meet any future challenge or crisis. Students will be the direct beneficiaries.
About the Author
Michael Bugeja is distinguished professor of liberal arts and sciences at Iowa State University. These views are his own. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
American Council of Trustees and Alumni and Institute for Effective Governance. 2017. How Much Is Too Much? Controlling Administrative Costs through Effective Oversight. Washington, DC: American Council of Trustees and Alumni.Google Scholar
View this YouTube video for step-by-step information on creating a portfolio via WordPress. After viewing, scroll down to see how to create a personal ethics code that can land your first media internship or position.
Compliance and Ethics Codes
Legal Compliance: You also must ensure that your company as a whole is in compliance with any external laws, regulations, or standards relating to your industry.
Corporate/Ethical Compliance: The actions and programs an organization sets in place to ensure compliance with internal policies, procedures, and accepted behavior, as well as external regulations.
Do not ignore standards
You have responsibility to report the incident
Every employee is held to the same standards
Ethics codes affirm protected classes
Those who report conflicts of interest are protected as whistle-blowers
Compliance is essential: You can be held liable for non-reporting
If unsure, you need to discuss with supervisor, human resources or legal department.
Part I: CREATING YOUR ETHICS CODE
1. What Codes Should Promote
• High, consistent standards of conduct. • Teamwork, sensitivity, collegiality. • Quality service and/or production. • Resolution of problems via openness and other shared values. • Fairness, respect, responsibility. • Trust.
2. What Codes Should Prevent
• Temptation, taking shortcuts to attain goals. • Deception, cheating to attain goals. • Manipulation, treating people like objects. • Bias, dealing unfairly with others based on race, gender, social class, or religion. • Self-gain, using School or company resources for personal benefits. • Incivility, reacting to rather than resolving challenges.
3. Four Values Found in Most Codes
• Truth, applying to all media careers. • Responsibility, relating to service, product, and accountability. • Respect, promoting teamwork, sensitivity toward others, tolerance of honest differences of opinion. • Fairness, a process of continual improvement.
4. Goals of a Good Code
• Is legal, truthful, and responsible. • Improves teamwork, morale, communication. • Enhances internal culture and external image. • Is sensitive toward others and viewpoints. • Resolves problems without creating new ones.
Part Two: 10 Steps to Write Your Code
1. Write a brief statement about your own values concerning such concepts as responsibility, truth, falsehood, temptation, manipulation, bias, and fairness. Length: 25-75 words each.
2. Check out links for ethics codes at the bottom of this page. This will give you an idea about phrasing and topics.
3. Compare your statements with ones in codes that you view online. Then revise your codes, if appropriate, clarifying terms or harmonizing content in keeping with high standards.
4. Re-evaluate each of your statements, circling key words and terms and listing them on a separate sheet.
5. Now condense each statement and keep or combine as many of those key terms as possible–about 10-50 words per item.
6. Assemble your codes in the same document and revise the wording of each so that all codes are similar in length and read in a consistent and parallel manner. (Common style errors include using the first person, “I,” in some codes and not in others and switching verb case or tense.)
7. Show a draft of your code to a mentor or role model and/or share yours with peers in a group study or workshop. Ask for a critique and then revise your document so that it lacks embarrassing misspellings or grammatical mistakes.
8. Insert your code in the blog portfolio and format.
9. Keep updating the code you create in this class throughout your Greenlee career.
10. During job or internship interviews, wait until the personnel manager asks a “responsibility”-related question … and then display your code.
Each day we hear about fake news, far-out conspiracies and Facebook claims — a media menu based on affirmation rather than information.
Small wonder some people believe ethics classes are useless.
Every era thinks its moral failures are epic. We might revisit this argument as we navigate the new year with resolutions and reservations.
The late 1980s were scandalous. News focused on the Iran-Contra scandal of the Reagan administration, which illegally sold weapons to fund rebels fighting Nicaragua’s socialist government.
James Wright, 48th Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, resigned in 1989 amid allegations that he misapplied purchases of his book, “Reflections of a Public Man,” to generate exorbitant speaking fees.
And then there was the Savings and Loan crisis, which at the time was “arguably the most catastrophic collapse of the banking industry since the Great Depression,” with some 1,000 S&Ls going under in 1989.
That year, Michael Levin, professor emeritus of philosophy at City University of New York, published a column in the New York Times, titled: “Ethics Courses: Useless.” In the wake of scandal, he argued, there always is a cry for ethics courses.
“Moral behavior is the product of training, not reflection,” Levin wrote. “As Aristotle stressed thousands of years ago, you get a good adult by habituating a good child to doing the right thing.”
In sum, Levin believed that you learn ethics at home, not in the classroom (or these days, in a webinar) because by then it might be too late.
Each semester I read the above Levin citation to my ethics classes and ask if they agree with it. Many students do. Then I press the issue. “What are some things that can happen to you, not related to your parents or how you were raised, that can undermine your well-being, trust, confidence or self-worth?”
Typically, students do not have an immediate response, believing their family values would endure any challenge. But after some prodding, they begin to cite some examples: a victim of crime, domestic violence, sexual assault.
The nature of these offenses often results in long-lasting trauma, including depression, panic attacks, flashbacks, post-traumatic stress and other adverse after-effects.
Now for some critical questions:
If heinous incidents cause people to lose trust, confidence or self-worth, can those values ever be restored?
If trust, confidence or self-worth cannot be restored, then do we discount those persons ever regaining well-being?
If we can restore trust, confidence and self-worth, does it not follow that there are methods to help regain well-being?
Of course, there are. There are counselors, therapists, clergy, mentors and loving friends and family members to help in that recovery. And ethics — lessons about truth, falsehood, manipulation, deception, justice, fairness and empowerment — can be part of that protocol.
Many of America’s moral values trace back to Benjamin Franklin. He was the 15th of 17 children, suffered physical and mental abuse by his older brother James, and was a teenage runaway, leaving Boston for Philadelphia.
He survived as best he could, in part by learning moral values.
At age 20, he wrote his famous “13 virtues” — a homage to the 13 colonies — to keep him on the straight and narrow. They included temperance, reticence, order, resolve, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, purity and humility.
We all can use a refresher course on some of these values.
To practice sincerity, Franklin wrote, “Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.” If we value justice, he advised that we should monitor our own words and deeds and do no harm to others. “Avoid extremes,” he wrote about moderation, and do not rejoice in the shortcomings of others, “so much as you think they deserve.”
Tranquility means not being “disturbed at trifles.”
His definitions are succinct. “Humility: Imitate Jesus and Socrates.”
Christianity.com states, “Of the 90 times Jesus was addressed directly in the gospels, 60 times he was called Teacher.”
Socrates (469–399 B.C.) spent his life teaching ethics. His lessons have been memorialized as the Socratic method, “asking question after clarifying question until his students arrived at their own understanding.”
Franklin loved the Socratic method. In his autobiography, he delighted in using it, “and grew very artful and expert in drawing people, even of superior knowledge, into concessions, the consequences of which they did not foresee, entangling them in difficulties out of which they could not extricate themselves.”
Can ethics be taught? Franklin’s life stands as testament to that as an abused child runaway whose study of philosophy established his own character as well as that of our country. Throughout his life, Franklin practiced and taught ethics in his almanacs, maxims and autobiography.
What about media ethics? For that, we look to Socrates. The best journalism should be based on his method, with reporters asking question after clarifying question until the audience arrives at fact-based understanding.
The media have work to do on that score.
Franklin and Socrates believed we not only should learn ethics; we should live them. If we heed that advice, as we emerge from the confines of pandemic, we might treat our neighbors as we wish to be treated, the Golden Rule.
Trigger words are ones that you relate to strongly–in a positive or negative manner. Journalists, especially on-air or in ad and PR campaigns–have to know what words trigger that reaction inside them. The audience should be aware of triggers, too, as they color our perception. Once you identify your triggers, journalists and practitioners can adjust for them emotionally.
Michael Bugeja has played the “Trigger Word” game in his ethics classes for decades.
Trigger words are just that: words or phrases that elicit inside us an overwhelmingly positive or negative emotional reaction. How does this relate to advertising, journalism and public relations? When a source or client utters such words, they alone may alter our perception, prompting us to view the person as friend or foe, based solely on a word or short phrase.
Here’s how the “Trigger Word” game is played in media ethics classes with enrollments approaching or exceeding 100.
Share only proper nouns. Students are warned not to share lowercase words that cause an emotional reaction. Lowercase words may violate privacy because they indicate that something associated with the word happened in the person’s life. Proper nouns emanate from culture, media, pop culture, social debate, government or other (miscellaneous). Example: “abortion” vs. “Roe v. Wade.”
Record words on board. Each time a student shares a word, that proper noun is written on the chalkboard or whiteboard. A minimum of at least 30 words are listed there.
Students vote on words. Students are asked which words on the board also cause a positive or negative emotional reaction in them.
Top 10 words for each class are listed. After all the votes are tabulated, ties are listed in alphabetical order (i.e. #9 Clinton, #10 Trump).
Top words for each year are compiled in these categories:
CULTURE (history, education, religion, etc.). Students typically learn about these words as a part of U.S. history or through their religion, education or convention.
GOVERNMENT (government figures, officials, policies). Students learn about these persons in their capacity of holding office, leading state or nation, or issuing policy.
MEDIA (news, social media, films). Students learn about these terms from viewing news in a multitude of journalism platforms.
POP CULTURE (fads, hype, urban legend). These terms come to us via sensationalized or mythic terms and figures, such as UFO and Bigfoot.
SOCIAL DEBATE (legal, social, political debates). These are long-standing debates, such as climate change or planned parenthood.
OTHER (local terms, businesses, miscellaneous). These are local or regional terms associated with the place the game is played, such as “Hawkeye,” the rival’s nickname for Iowa State “Cyclones.”
Here is a snapshot of responses at Ohio Univ. and Iowa State University
Note: Ohio University years are in green and Iowa State in cardinal.
Here are cumulative categories of triggers
As you can see, culture and media are the chief influencers of words that spark deep emotions.
Here is a detailed look at categorical breakdowns of each year
Impact of “media” continues to rise over the years, inching up on culture. In some sense, we are dealing with media culture v. American culture. Social debate, government and “other” are consistent throughout the years without dominating any one year. Pop culture, which includes advertising, has little impact.
Keep in mind that this is just a snapshot. Living Media Ethicsis in the process of collecting decades worth of data from this exercise in a more extensive research project.
In the meantime, it is important to note the impact that culture has, especially on social mores formulated by history, education and convention. As media, which includes social media, becomes more dominant, we might be more attuned to its impact on our collective psyches.
If we learned anything in 2020, it is how words have consequences. They can heal or hurt. Inspire or conspire. Certain words and phrases elicit intense positive or negative emotions. These are called “trigger” words, and they influence how we view the world.
The ethical question is who or what put them in our psyches.
For more than 30 years, I have been exploring that in media ethics classes at Ohio University and Iowa State University.
Students play “The Trigger Word Game,” and you can do the same, after you know the concept and rules.
What are triggers?
These words and phrases are so powerful that they cause us to lose perspective when we most need it during job interviews, professional presentations, meetings, family gatherings and even romantic encounters. Someone may use a term, and immediately we presume they are a friend or an enemy.
Worse, others may have discerned our triggers beforehand and so can use them deceptively to manipulate us in front of others.
Often these words and phrases harken past experiences, such as “racism” or “drunk driving.” However, when proper nouns are used for triggers, such as “Black Lives Matter” or “MADD” (Mothers Against Drunk Driving), they usually are related to:
CULTURE (history, education, religion, etc.) pertaining to heritage, philosophy or ethnicity.
GOVERNMENT (political parties, officials, legislation) pertaining to those holding office, embracing a political platform, or making policy.
MEDIA (news, social media, films) pertaining to content in various print, audio, visual and/or multimedia venues.
POP CULTURE (fads, hype, urban legend) pertaining to sensationalized or mythic figures, such as UFO and Bigfoot.
SOCIAL DEBATE (legal, social, national dialogues) pertaining to long-standing arguments, such as abortion rights or climate change.
OTHER (communities, nicknames, miscellaneous) pertaining to localities, colloquialisms or uncategorized locutions.
Trigger words and phrases as proper nouns also reflect social mores, or what a society believes to be true at a specific point in time.
How to play the game
Here’s how students do it electronically:
Share only proper nouns. Students send terms through the anonymous chat function on Zoom or WebEx.
Compile terms. The list usually contains between 30-50 words and phrases.
Vote on words. In an anonymous online poll, students respond “yes” if the term also is a trigger for them or “no” if it isn’t.
List top 10 words. After all votes are tabulated, terms are rank ordered with ties listed in alphabetical order (i.e. #9 Clinton, #10 Trump).
For a snapshot of trigger words and phrases since 1995, click here.
Here are trigger words from a 2001 class at Ohio University coded shortly after the 9/11 attack:
Roe v. Wade [Social Debate]
NY Fire Dept. [Media]
O.J. [Pop Culture]
Quad Night [Other]
Cleveland Browns [Other]
In this case, Quad Night and Cleveland Browns are associated with an OU student event and an NFL team. Afghanistan was news following the 9/11 attacks. NY Fire Department also was news related to firefighters’ bravery in the attacks. Some words, like O.J., would have been coded as news in 1994; by 2001, that was classified as pop culture.
Compare that list with fall semester 2020.
Donald Trump [Government]
George Floyd [Media]
Trayvon Martin [Media]
801 Day [Other]
Kim Reynolds [Government]
For those who already have forgotten, “801 Day” concerns the August 1 video about Iowa State students ignoring the COVID-19 regulations issued by the University.
What Caused the Trigger?
Since 1995, the category of “Culture” was the chief influencer, followed by “Media,” “Government,” “Social Debate,” “Other” and “Pop Culture.”
The impact of “media” has risen over the years, peaking in 2016. Social debate showed high levels in 2012 and 2019. Pop culture and other designations remained relatively low except in 2018.
It is important to note that “Culture” — informed by history, religion, education and convention — tends to repeat the same terms year after year while media’s terms often flare and then fade.
What are your lowercase and uppercase trigger words? Make lists and consider who or what put those terms in your conscience and consciousness. If you find that media have great influence on your perception, you might want to limit your engagement with social media.
At any rate, you should analyze your own trigger word lists. You can maintain composure when someone uses those terms or view them as a warning not to categorize people prematurely in a positive or negative light.
Recognizing your trigger words is part of professional and ethical demeanor. We should listen to views of others on a number of topics before praising or condemning them in snap judgments.
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.”
On Jan. 6, Congress will count electoral votes to validate the 2020 election for president and vice president. There will be a final, futile attempt to challenge the results in swing states, essentially resurrecting unsubstantiated claims of Texas v. Pennsylvania, et. al, U.S. Supreme Court.
As such, we might revisit this historic case as well as journalism’s primary role to inform citizens so that they make intelligent decisions in the voting booth.
America is a representative democracy or, more specifically, a federal constitutional representative democracy. We are not a pure democracy, electing presidents by popular vote; if so, Hillary Clinton would be president. Nor are we a pure republic, in which representatives can override the will of the people. We have elements of both because states and the federal government share power.
In addition to that, we have checks and balances among the branches of government: executive, legislative and judicial. Again, we are reminded of that as state, federal and U.S. Supreme courts have dismissed or rejected 60 claims that the 2020 election was rigged, fraudulent and/or unconstitutional.
The most egregious example was the Texas Supreme Court case filed by that state’s attorney general, Ken Paxton. He asserted that elections in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Michigan and Wisconsin, which President-elect Joe Biden won, were unconstitutional because voting procedures were determined by nonlegislative means.
In a new twist on “cancel culture,” the Texas suit sought to invalidate millions of votes so that President Donald Trump could claim a second consecutive term.
Trump intervened in the case, calling it “the big one.”
The case was doomed from the get-go, with Texas having no legal interest in how other states ran their elections. Strange that Texas, once a republic (1836-1846) and still known for autonomy, should advance a case that nullifies state rights. Same goes for the attorneys general of several red states; but those are the lines that Trump’s adherents cross to enable his alternative reality.
The 126 signatories, joined by 18 state attorneys general, engaged in a political strategy known as “power without consequence.” They could sign on, knowing the case would be thrown out, and still profess to be supporting a president who cannot accept defeat.
But there should be a consequence, and editors and news directors are empowered to deliver that. They also have an ethical obligation to do so as members of the Fourth Estate.
Social responsibility is grounded in Jeffersonian free press philosophy. Thomas Jefferson’s famous 1787 citation — “were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter” — is the bedrock of that precept. Often neglected is the next sentence of that citation: “But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.”
That helped make education a core tenet of the United States, best articulated by John Jay, the nation’s first chief justice. He considered “knowledge to be the soul of a republic,” and education a birthright in which “nothing should be left undone to afford all ranks of people the means of obtaining a proper degree of it at a cheap and easy rate.”
Because of education, necessary to read newspapers, journalism became the unofficial but formidable fourth branch of government.
Education is essential in any republic, because an unscrupulous alliance — which Jay dubbed “the weak and the wicked” — might seek to overthrow the will of the people.
That is precisely what the Texas suit aimed to do. Pennsylvania’s response to that attempt — “seditious abuse of the judicial process” — will reverberate in the historical annals.
Media history also will document journalism’s response, again associated with social responsibility.
In the 1971 case, New York Times Co. v. United States, the highest court allowed the Times and The Washington Post to publish classified information, otherwise known as the Pentagon Papers, about the Vietnam War. A key argument acknowledged “the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors.”
That statement applies in the Texas case.
Going on record
Those elected signatories and adherents should be held to account for undermining the democratic process. Consider the example set by the Orlando Sentinel, whose editorial board apologized for endorsing U.S. Rep. Michael Waltz, noting:
We had no idea, had no way of knowing at the time, that Waltz was not committed to democracy.
During our endorsement interview with the incumbent congressman, we didn’t think to ask, “Would you support an effort to throw out the votes of tens of millions of Americans in four states in order to overturn a presidential election and hand it to the person who lost, Donald Trump?”
It will be our collective bad to ignore social responsibility and allow those House Republicans and Senate adherents to circumvent consequences for their signatures.
What can editors do?
Consider withdrawing endorsements or declining to write future ones on behalf of any of those signatories or adherents.
Reference their anti-democratic support of the Texas case or Jan. 6 electoral-vote objections in any online biography or news item in which they appear as source or subject.
Create content to explain to your audience journalism’s primary role of upholding democracy and holding elected representatives to account.
Any or all of the above puts your company on record.
Legal historians will look at this case as one of the most outlandish attempts to subvert democracy. Media historians will look at how newspapers, broadcast stations and online news outlets covered it via doctrines of social responsibility.
It is up to editors and news directors to make their case about the Texas signatories and Jan. 6 adherents.
The sages knew that “every day has its problems” — new ones that arise without warning — in addition to “everyday problems” that we face day in, day out.
Everyday problems include mental illness, sorrow, fear, injustice, violence, addiction, conflict and persecution — in other words, all the social ills that Jesus of Nazareth addressed in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:3-10).
The apostle Matthew coined the phrase “every day has its problems” (6:34), advising us not to fret about the future and warning, “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?” (6:27).
Secular philosophers came to similar conclusions. The Confucian scholar Mencius (327-289 B.C.) believed success in life relied on adaptability. Every day has its problems, he believed, so it is futile to worry about or plan for the future. Even if you foresaw it, you would do so as the person you are today, not as the one you will be tomorrow.
Yet we plan our tomorrows as if everyday problems will disappear and no new ones will arise. We know by experience that this cannot be true.
Often the result is chaos as new problems compound existing ones so that our best-laid plans go awry.
This not only happens to individuals but also to organizations and governments.
Inability to adapt afflicts Congress.
In a Jan. 6, 2020 report titled, “What to expect from Congress in 2020,” elected officials were supposed to spend the year on the impeachment of Donald Trump (remember that?) in addition to conundrums of trade agreements, infrastructure, debt ceilings, drug prices, gun control, the census and election-year campaigning.
Those concerns were being debated throughout February when, according to reporter Bob Woodward, President Trump confided that he knew of a deadly virus that “goes through the air. … It’s also more deadly than even your strenuous flus.”
Neither Trump, nor Woodward, for that matter, had the gumption to mention that publicly at the time.
Instead, the president wanted to play down COVID-19: “I don’t want to create a panic.”
He lived up to that prophecy, failing to adapt a month later when schools and businesses closed down and the pandemic hit home. By May 2020, nearly 39 million jobs were lost along with 95,235 lives.
Nevertheless, in months that followed, millions of Americans insisted on leading their lives unaffected by the continuing specter of coronavirus. Some called it a hoax. Medical News Today listed 28 other myths, including that coronavirus was like the flu and gargling with bleach would kill it. The virus was supposed to die anyway in warmer weather.
This constituted a colossal failure to adapt.
Biological adaptability is a hallmark of the human species. A quote by Louisiana State Professor Leon C. Megginson, misattributed to Charles Darwin, captures the essence of “The Origin of Species”: “[I]t is not the most intellectual of the species that survives; it is not the strongest that survives; but the species that survives is the one that is able best to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself.”
Biblical, philosophical and biological truths all affirm the value of adaptability. To embrace it, we need peace of mind, the inner knowing that we can meet the challenges of the day.
This is a very American idea.
Benjamin Franklin sought peace of mind though frugality, sincerity, fairness, moderation, humility, cleanliness and tranquility, among other values.
He had a mindful daily schedule. When he awoke, he asked himself, “What good shall I do today?” He scheduled work every few hours. In between, he took time to relax, dine, do housework and enjoy music or conversation. Before bed, he ended his day by recounting whether he had done anything good to serve others. Then he got a restful night’s sleep of at least 7 hours.
Franklin’s biggest accomplishment was not the lightning rod. He helped devise checks and balances among the branches of government — executive, judicial and congressional — that remains a touchstone of our democracy.
The U.S. Constitution is known worldwide by its ability to adapt to the times.
In a 1789 letter to a friend, Franklin wrote, “Our new Constitution is now established, everything seems to promise it will be durable; but, in this world, nothing is certain except death and taxes.” That iconic remark reminds us that we can rely on little in life. Best, then, to adapt.
What could possibly be on the horizon in 2021? What new dilemmas will arise for which we will be devastatingly unprepared?
Think tanks will tell you it’s the economy, the recovery, health care, immigration, environment, climate change, terrorism, gun violence and civil strife, intensified by lack of leadership on top of corporate, public and personal debt.
But the sages would advise you not to worry because tomorrow will take care of itself, provided we learn to adapt.
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.”