Understanding journalism (or its absence) in the Age of Conspiracy

Social critics claim to know why conspiracy theories are pervasive but fail to acknowledge the primary reasons: too much internet, too little patience.

The United States Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. was breached by thousands of protesters during a “Stop The Steal” rally in support of President Donald Trump. (zz/STRF/STAR MAX/IPx)

By: Michael Bugeja

From Area 51 aliens and Bigfoot sightings to deep state cabals and QAnon fanatics, conspiracy groups proliferate content on social media, often eclipsing fact-based news.

There are numerous explanations. Some experts believe conspiracy theories flourish in environments of political or social unrest. They point to former President Donald Trump’s conspiratorial claims of voter fraud fueling the Jan. 6 insurrection.

FOR THE REST OF THE ARTICLE, CLICK HERE OR VISIT: https://www.poynter.org/commentary/2021/understanding-journalism-or-its-absence-in-the-age-of-conspiracy/

Is there still value in teaching ethics?

By Michael Bugeja -February 20, 2021
Benjamin Franklin, an abused runaway, used his own study of philosophy to form his character and the nation’s. (Detail of “Benjamin Franklin” by David Rent Etter, after Charles Willson Peale after David Martin, 1835/ Independence National Historical Park via National Park Service.)

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.

New Data on Trigger Words

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.

  1. 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.”
  2. 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.
  3. Students vote on words. Students are asked which words on the board also cause a positive or negative emotional reaction in them.
  4. 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

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

Categories of Triggers_detailed

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 Ethics is 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.

What are your ‘trigger’ words?

By Michael Bugeja January 20, 2021

Like the trigger of a firearm, “trigger words” can set a person off. (Creative Commons photo via Pxhere)

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, legislationpertaining to those holding office, embracing a political platform, or making policy.
  • MEDIA (news, social media, filmspertaining to content in various print, audio, visual and/or multimedia venues.
  • POP CULTURE (fads, hype, urban legendpertaining to sensationalized or mythic figures, such as UFO and Bigfoot.
  • SOCIAL DEBATE (legal, social, national dialoguespertaining to long-standing arguments, such as abortion rights or climate change.
  • OTHER (communities, nicknames, miscellaneouspertaining 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:

  1. Share only proper nouns. Students send terms through the anonymous chat function on Zoom or WebEx.
  2. Compile terms. The list usually contains between 30-50 words and phrases.
  3. 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.
  4. 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:

  1. God [Culture]
  2. MLK [Culture]
  3. Afghanistan [Media]
  4. Bush [Government]
  5.  Christianity [Culture]
  6. Roe v. Wade [Social Debate]
  7. NY Fire Dept. [Media]
  8. O.J. [Pop Culture]
  9. Quad Night [Other]
  10. 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.

  1. Donald Trump [Government]
  2. COVID-19 [Media]
  3. Nazi [Culture]
  4. George Floyd [Media]
  5. Holocaust [Culture]
  6. MAGA [Media]
  7. Trayvon Martin [Media]
  8. 801 Day [Other]
  9. BLM [Media]
  10. 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.”

Journalists must hold signatories and adherents to account in the Texas Supreme Court case

There should be a consequence for the dismissed case, which lives on in futile election results challenges. News leaders are empowered to deliver it.

The U.S. Supreme Court (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

By: Michael Bugeja, January 5, 2021  Copyright 2021 Poynter Institute

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.

Editors and news directors have an ethical obligation to go on record regarding the 126 Republican Representatives who endorsed this subversive case.

Also add to this list the likely 140 adherents in the House and 12 in the Senate who say they will object to electoral votes on Wednesday.

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.

The Hill and other publications called the case the legal equivalent of a coup d’état.

Coup without consequence

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.

On Dec. 11, the U.S. Supreme Court dismissed the case in a two-paragraph order.

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.

Unscrupulous alliances

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?”

Our bad.

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.

Everyday problems, problems every day: why we must learn to adapt


Chameleons adapt to their environments in order to survive. (Creative Commons photo via Pxhere)

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).

Good advice.

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 hoaxMedical 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

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.”

It’s time to hold editors accountable for harassed news workers

If you are an editor, publisher or general manager, what, if anything, do you do when employees, especially women, are harassed online?


By: Michael Bugeja, Copyright Poynter Institute 2020 

Like many professors, I follow journalism graduates on Facebook to keep up with their achievements, and recently came upon a disturbing post that inspired this column. An alumna received a signed message from a reader who called her “a f—— idiot” and told her to “go and f— yourself, b—-.”

Jessie Opoien, opinion editor for The (Madison, Wisconsin) Capital Times, broke journalism convention by sharing the offensive message. That same convention asks news workers to ignore slurs and threats, promote their work on social media, and focus on their assignments instead of their detractors.

That’s a prescription for PTSD, especially for women journalists.

In October, Ms. Magazine ran a article titled, “Online Harassment, Physical Threats: The Cost of Reporting for Women Journalists,” emphasizing these points:

  • In the first half of 2020, some 25 organized troll campaigns targeted women journalists, up from 17 cases during the same period last year.
  • By publication time, there had been 267 attacks and threats against women journalists.
  • Many of these attacks focused on appearance or sexuality, including death and rape threats, as well as incidents of doxing in extreme cases.
  • Women of color were 34% more likely than white women to be mentioned in abusive tweets.
  • Black women received racist messages in addition to being addressed in sexist or profane slurs.

The article concluded:

As trolling often falls into the gray zone somewhere between freedom of speech and online anonymity, we believe that a real, honest conversation with actual journalists who experience online abuse firsthand, is crucial to get some more clarity and sense of solidarity.

Solidarity is fine. What isn’t is journalism convention.

For 14 years I served as director of Iowa State’s Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication. Women journalism instructors get trolled, too. As supervisor, I reported threats to authorities, asked tech support to identify the abusers’ IP addresses and took risk-assessment measures to ensure safety. Policy also required me to provide support services to the employee, if requested.

In the wake of the #MeToo movement, threats against women professors have increased. An Inside Higher Ed article cites a study that found 91% of instructors reported at least one act of student incivility or bullying. “Women, racial minorities, younger faculty members and those with less experience and credentials reported more such instances.” Another study found women academics more than male peers suffered “anxiety, stress-related illness, difficulty concentrating or wanting to quit.”

The impact of sexist and racist slurs is devastating. An essay by Kristina M.W. Mitchell titled “It’s a Dangerous Business, Being a Female Professor” documents the emotional trauma of a rape threat. “I was made to feel vulnerable in my office — my professional space — which is perhaps the one place in my life where I feel most empowered and assertive.”

Reporters are empowered at their desks, too, using cutting-edge technology to disseminate content instantaneously to subscribers. Their articles, photographs and commentary influence decisions from school boards to board rooms. They are influential members of the Fourth Estate, informing the electorate and keeping government in check.

When journalists are targeted, trolled and threatened, the intent is to disempower them. Editors know this. However, if employees honor journalism convention, ignoring the slurs and intimidations — because, well, they’re reporters — their work may suffer along with their psyches.

RELATED POYNTER TRAINING: #UsToo: Building Trust in Newsrooms

Conversely, when editors support employees, the climate in the newsroom brightens.

“What a difference it makes, as a woman in a newsroom, to have editors who make it very clear that they want to hear about harassment,” Jessie Opoien said. “For years, I kept a lot of incidents and patterns to myself, only talking about them with other women who understood or were dealing with the same thing.”

After a handful of incidents, Opoien mentioned online harassment “in an offhand way — maybe a joke or a ‘hey, can you believe what this guy just said to me’” — and then realized her editors did not want her to suffer such treatment, reassuring her that they would support her any time she decided to take action.

“It’s incredibly empowering just knowing that, even if you don’t decide to act on most of the stuff people say or do.”

Opoien would like editors to reassure all reporters, no matter their gender, that management would support them anytime they feel uncomfortable or endangered.

For that to happen, editors must rethink conventional practice and address this pervasive problem. They can use technology to identify the IP addresses of abusers, reporting any threats to authorities. They can contact abusers and demand apologies, take risk-assessment measures to ensure the safety of their newsrooms and offer an array of support services to ensure the mental wellbeing of employees.

Editors also are empowered by the First Amendment.

When I saw the offensive message that Opoien posted on Facebook, I wrote this response:

Your editor should write an op-ed about it. People who send these outrageously offensive messages should be asked for a formal apology and/or a response or statement to be included in the published piece. Yes, every journalist gets these, but women journalists get far more. If editors want a safe newsroom, they need to let the public know and expose those who abuse news workers.

I hope editors, publishers and general managers respond to the call here to leave a comment about best practices to support news workers from continued online harassment. Perhaps Poynter can assemble those responses in a follow-up piece about best practices.

Trolls have power without consequence. It’s time to give them a taste of their own toxic medicine.

A holiday season of gratification or gratitude?

By Michael Bugeja, Iowa Capital Dispatch

(Creative Commons photo via Pxhere)

Gratification and gratitude share the same Latin root, gratus, or “pleasure.” We may experience gratification when we shop for a gift and express gratitude when we receive one.

During the holidays, according to secular and religious traditions, we should feel and convey gratitude. As the year winds down, it’s an ideal time for reflection and appreciation for life’s blessings. Too often, however, we are busy shopping online seeking gratification with products delivered within a few days by Amazon, Wal-Mart, eBay and other digital vendors.

Delayed gratification used to be a virtue, postponing immediate rewards in anticipation of greater ones in the future. Not so much anymore.

Marketers operate on the concept of instant gratification, which Entrepreneur magazine defines as “the desire to experience pleasure or fulfillment without delay or deferment. Basically, it’s when you want it; and you want it now.”

According to Freud’s pleasure principle, humans strive to sate basic needs such as hunger, thirst, sexual desire and other drives. Most of us take those needs for granted, without considering the thousands in Iowa who go to bed hungry or who suffer from loneliness or anxiety. One in 10 Iowans and 1 in 7 children cope with food insecurity. One in 5 lives with some form of mental illness.

Gratification is short-lived and potentially costly and addictive. We have to repeat the activity to get the same pleasurable feeling. When it comes to compulsive online shopping, the experience of pleasure quickly fades, prompting people to buy more than they can afford.

There is a name for this:  “buying-shopping disorder.” According to Addiction Center, people so afflicted “use shopping as a coping mechanism to regulate emotions by either getting pleasure or relief after shopping.” Those addicted with BSD also experience “post-purchase guilt and may even shop more to feel better, creating a vicious cycle.”

Video gaming is a growing addiction. Many adults and teens this year will buy or receive PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X. Those pricey consoles are popular because they infuse gamers with stronger doses of gratification, thanks to ultra-high resolution and faster loading times.

Gaming indulges users according to gratification theory. A popular video gaming blog notes that people experience arousal of senses, challenge of skill levels, online competition, release from boredom, stimulation of imagination, and social interaction with other gamers.

That’s why gaming can be so addictive. Here are symptoms cited by the American Psychiatric Association:

  • Preoccupation with gaming.
  • Withdrawal symptoms when gaming is taken away or not possible.
  • Loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities due to gaming.
  • Deceiving family members or others about the amount of time spent on gaming.
  • The need to spend more time gaming to satisfy the urge.

Unlike gratification, gratitude generates ever higher levels of happiness without more time and expense.

Gratitude is associated with the pursuit of happiness as natural right in the Declaration of Independence. Diplomat and statesman James Madison believed gratitude helped define the character of America, advancing liberty and setting an example for the rest of the world.

New York University professor and author Jonathan Haidt says people make three mistakes seeking happiness. It doesn’t mean “getting what you want,” because that lasts only a short time. It doesn’t mean focusing on yourself to get ahead in the world, which leads to self-centeredness. Neither should we equate happiness with few restrictions on our time. That depends on how you spend it.

Haidt believes creating and nurturing bonds with others generates true happiness. “There’s a lot of research in positive psychology showing that gratitude — cultivating gratitude, expressing gratitude — strengthens relationships.”

Holidays are about relationships, especially religious remembrances. Mawlid, one of the first, happened Oct. 28-29, commemorating the birth of the Prophet Muhammad. Giving to charity then is especially important.

Americans in December marvel at multicolored lights on houses and trees. But the Jewish Festival of Lights, Hannukah, observed Dec. 10-18, involves families lighting a special candelabra, the menorah, and thanking God for blessings and deliverance.

Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, not in a villa or stronghold, but in a manger symbolizing humility and purity of character. One of the greatest citations of gratitude is found in Mark 12:31: Love your neighbor as yourself.

Your neighbor no doubt needs some love. They may be experiencing struggles with a global pandemic, faltering economies, derecho damage, partisan politics and personal challenges such as disease, unemployment, homelessness, personal loss and, yes, addiction.

Perhaps we should celebrate this year by giving to charity, acknowledging blessings and practicing humility, loving others as ourselves without regard to color or creed.

That might be a resolution for 2021.

Perseverance is a key virtue in Iowa’s recovery

In politics and society, there is a difference between perseverance and persistence, stubborn belief despite evidence to the contrary. Perseverance requires reflection, especially at Thanksgiving.

Michael Bugeja, Iowa View contributor , Des Moines Register

As winter approaches with frigid temperatures and blistering chills, Iowans will persevere even as roads and remaining businesses and schools close in the wake of blizzard and pandemic. We must call upon that virtue to endure the challenges, setbacks and uncertainties that await us.

As I write, COVID-19 hospitalizations in Polk County are at an all-time high. Democrats are angry about election losses in Congress and Republicans grieve about President-Elect Joe Biden’s win. Joblessness is expected to climb in the coming months. Farm families are coping with derecho- and drought-related crop losses that damaged 850,000 acres. Iowa’s public universities have endured tens of millions of dollars in budget cuts on top of untold future losses due to declines in enrollment.

Many of us have huddled inside since March using Facebook and Twitter as outlet for our woes, unfriending acquaintances, colleagues and relatives whose polar-opposite politics leave no room for compromise or compassion.

Until we heal the racial, economic and political divisions in our country, democracy itself may be at stake.

Iowans should be optimistic.

U.S. News and World Report lists us as one of the best states in the union. Some 41% of residents are college educated. Only New Hampshire outranks Iowa as a state of “opportunity,” chiefly because so much here is “affordable.”

Nevertheless, there are things we cannot afford now, and that is to confuse perseverance with persistence. The two words often are used interchangeably, but they are not synonymous.

Perseverance is defined as “doing something despite difficulty or delay in achieving success.” Persistence means “obstinate continuance in a course of action in spite of difficulty or opposition.”

Of course, there are times when persistence matters, especially in the wake of injustice. Consider the 1431 trial of Joan of Arc, who persisted 22 times about her faith. Her accusers condemned her because she “obstinately persists” in wearing men’s clothing and “behaves more like a man than a woman.”Your stories live here.Fuel your hometown passion and plug into the stories that define it.Create Account

When we persist in less righteous causes, demonizing those who hold contrary political or social views, we deceive ourselves into believing our perception is reality. It is not. Perception is a product of culture, economy, experience, religion and location, as that influences us more than we realize, by way of history, opportunity and yes, weather. There are too many variables to proclaim that our perception trumps that of our neighbors.

That’s where perseverance plays a role.

Thousands of Iowans are persevering now — going to or looking for work — despite caring for loved ones. Teachers are persevering by instructing online while parents juggle responsibilities so their children can log on for those lessons. Public servants persevere delivering everything from mail to driver’s licenses. Health care workers labor around the clock in viral and overcrowded environs.

And then there are low-paid and minimum-wage earners who have labored since March at gas stations, groceries and big-box stores so that all of us had household essentials to persevere through the pandemic.

Perseverance differs from persistence in one other key ethical element: reflection. People who persevere remind themselves about why they are doing so during intense or depressing occasions.

For instance, those who lost loved ones to the coronavirus persevere for the sake of family. Those who lost crops, jobs or homes persevere for the same reason. Teachers, public servants and health care workers persevere because of belief in higher causes than their own — education, democracy, well-being.

Iowans, especially farmers, persevere because they know about the seasons, that dark days of winter eventually yield to the thaws and growths of spring. That cycle also applies to current problems. If we persevere, because we have priorities or higher purposes, we do so in the hope that better days are ahead.

And they are.

We are close to having a vaccine against COVID-19. If we follow recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control, especially at Thanksgiving — wearing masks, avoiding crowds, postponing travel — we can recite our many blessings and embrace our priorities rather than misgivings.

Patience is a virtue, especially in this election.

By Michael Bugeja, Iowa Capital Dispatch

Creative Commons photo via Pxhere.com)
With allegations about mail-in ballots, rigged elections and voter intimidation, Americans likely will not know the victor of the 2020 presidential race on the morning of Nov. 4.

That’s why we should embrace patience as a virtue. Given partisan views, we will need it.

President Trump has made dozens of attacks on the integrity of voting. Democratic challenger Joe Biden has raised concerns that Trump intends to steal the election via voter suppression.

On election night, the one thing we can count on, in addition to votes, are more allegations of fraud and suppression.

Unless there is an overwhelming mandate for Trump or Biden, it may take days or even weeks to sort out the final result.

That is why patience will be a virtue.

No one knows for sure who coined that phrase. Literary critics cite two 14th Century allegorical poemsIn “Piers Plowman” by William Langland, “Patience” is a character that associates with “Conscience,” making it a virtue. In “Canterbury Tales” by Geoffrey Chaucer, patience is said to be a “high virtue.”

Many philosophers trace the maxim to Marcus Porcius Cato, also known as Cato the Elder, a Roman soldier, senator and historian, who wrote: “Of human virtues, patience is most great.”

Unfortunately, in modern times, patience is undervalued as a virtue.

Paul Corcoran, professor of politics at the University of Adelaide, Australia, acknowledges political theory favors action over patience. Patience is perceived to be “a weakness, a lack of assertive confidence and the sign of a broken spirit.” He writes that patience, the moral opposite of anger, involves our notions about time and community.

People value time as a zero-sum commodity and feel ire when others deprive us of any of it due to their behavior or interactions with us.

Consider tailgating, not at football games but on interstates. Drivers ride bumpers even when others travel over the speed limit in the fast lane. Aggressive drivers denigrate slower ones because they perceive the theft of their time.

Conversely, the driver being tailgated can slow down to increase the other’s irritation or move angrily into another lane. We also can refuse to look in rearview mirrors and stay in our lane on cruise control. That’s not patience; that’s ignoring the other driver and merely waiting out the disturbance.

Patience asks us not to pass judgment when others want to pass us on the highway. Rather, we should seek the safest solution and continue without judgment on our journey.

Life is journey, and we are all fellow travelers.

Nevertheless, Americans are growing increasingly impatient and intolerant of each other. The Pew Research Center reports that 55% of social media users are exhausted by the incivility and content of political posts.

In my own research, associated with technology, I have documented how digital communication has accelerated our concept of time and altered our appreciation of community. We expect others to reply instantaneously to our emails and texts and relegate community to social media affinity groups. Anyone else can be disinvited or unfriended.

In his book “On Patience,” Professor Matthew Pianalto, Eastern Kentucky University, puts patience into moral context, especially as it relates to anger, which results of the Nov. 3 election are bound to illicit in millions of voters.

Patience, he believes, is the capacity to endure the frustration of our hopes, wishes and desires without our lapsing into anger or despair. To overcome disappointments, we should acknowledge outcomes over which we have limited or no control. Finally, we can choose how to respond to discontent. Patience is a matter of choosing our battles wisely and accepting what is beyond our control.

I asked Pianalto about the role patience may play in the upcoming election.

“Due to the ways the coronavirus pandemic will change how many of us vote, we will have to be patient in getting the results,” Pianalto says. “We will have to wait for all of the mail-in ballots to come in and be counted. If the election is close or contested, we may have to wait even longer for recounts that follow a fair process.

“Given the current circumstances,” he adds, “I don’t see how we won’t have to wait until after the 4th to know the results even if they are not close.”

Pianalto doesn’t associate patience as it relates to a candidate who refuses to concede, “except that it seems fair to do so if a recount is justified due to an exceedingly close margin.

“On the other hand,” he notes, “I don’t think we need to have much sympathy for a candidate who refuses to concede for irrational reasons.”

That last scenario is bound to elicit anger in the electorate. “However,” Pianalto cautions, “even if a sore loser can’t move on, the rest of us can. And so will the process.”

That observation affirms both patience and the Constitution, in which we as voters have placed our trust.