Author: Michael Bugeja

Epstein and Bias: When Newsrooms Sanitize Truth

Why are news outlets using the phrase “underage women” when the 14-page indictment against Jeffrey Epstein does not include the words “woman” or “women”? Why is “sex with minors” being used instead of “assault” or “rape”? Why are major networks using file photos that depict Epstein as “financier” rather than as accused sex trafficker? Could newsrooms be sanitizing truth, revealing bias or social privilege?

As the video shows, reporters and television anchors have been using the term “underage women” to such extent that their outlets are being called out for bias. The origin of the term is mystifying in as much as the indictment against Jeffrey Epstein uses “underage” three times (“underage victims” once and “victims were underage” twice). It does not use the term “woman” or “women”; it uses “girl” or “girls” (often in the phrase “minor girls”) 21 times.

Viewing these reports, one has to wonder whether reporters have read the indictment that details charges against Epstein in stark terms. Consider the opening salvo by the Southern District of New York:

(Sex Trafficking Conspiracy) The Grand Jury charges: OVERVIEW
1. . As set forth herein, over the course of many years, JEFFREY EPSTEIN, the defendant, sexually exploited and abused dozens of minor girls at his homes in Manhattan, New York, and Palm Beach, Florida, among other locations.

Another example of media bias involves headshots (not mugshots) of Epstein downloaded from Internet that portray him as a professional of high social standing. When you search his name on Google, you get this headshot (as of July 14):

Here is a July 12 example juxtaposed to a mugshot in an ABC News report to show the difference in portrayals. The photo on the left was used in a segment about President Trump’s then Labor Secretary Alex Acosta who negotiated a lenient deal for Epstein in 2008 when Acosta was the U.S. attorney for Southern Florida. (Acosta resigned because of that involvement.)

Lapses such as “underage women” tarnish journalism, fueling charges of elitism and media bias. This is especially unfortunate in light of stellar investigative reporting by Julie K. Brown of The Miami Herald, which exposed “the deal of a lifetime.” Some 11 years ago, Epstein could have spent the rest of his life in prison for sex crimes against children; instead, he would serve 13 months in a county jail with special privileges, such as going to his office six days a week.

Living Media Ethics has a chapter on latent triggers that influence perception, such as  upbringing, social standing, personal and generational experiences and education. The chapter also explicates words and phrases like “underage women,” indicating personal bias and tainting the news.

Such phrases often involve social mores, or what a society believes to be true in a certain point in time in a given culture. Applied to the Epstein case, some segments may find it difficult to believe that a successful financier–as depicted in file photos–can commit lurid crimes involving the enticement and recruitment of girls to engage in illicit sex acts.

In the days following reports about Acosta and Epstein, sexual assault survivors have used social media to inform journalists about bias. In a report by USA Today, titled “Has the media ‘sanitized’ the accusations against Jeffrey Epstein?,” the newspaper notes: “The media has been blasted for using terms such as “underage women” instead of “children,” for saying “sex with minors” instead of “rape,” for using the phrase “paid for sex,” which they say erases coercion.”

It is incumbent upon journalists to read indictments carefully, download or access photos that suit the occasion or crime, be sensitive to how reports affect survivors, and correct language that slants the story or indicates personal or social bias.

High Court Strikes Blow to Freedom of Information

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in favor of allowing government agencies to withhold data that a private entity has deemed confidential … as long as that entity and agency promise to keep those records from disclosure.

In 2011, the Argus Leader newspaper (Sioux Falls, S.D.) submitted a Freedom of Information request to the U.S. Department of Agriculture,  soliciting data about how taxpayer-funded dollars were being used at businesses selling food products under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamp program.

According to the newspaper, the records “would identify potential instances of food stamp fraud, as well as give more insight into food deserts and food insecurity in rural South Dakota. The payments would also identify which corporations make the most money in the program.”

The 6-3 Supreme Court decision overturns 8th Circuit and district court rulings stating that these records should have been provided. Under existing case law, exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act would be allowed in such instances only if the government could not obtain the data or its dissemination would harm the private entity’s competitive position.

Now that entity need not show any harm.

You can read the entire decision as reported by Here is an excerpt:

Henceforth, a private-sector submitter of information to an agency will only need to show their efforts to keep the information private and the assurances they received from the agency that it would keep the information from the public.

Scotusblog also noted how Trump appointee Neil Gorsuch, who wrote the opinion,  referred to dictionary interpretations of the term “confidential.” He overlooked FOIA’s legislative history as well as Congress’ intent in enacting it. “Nor was he persuaded by the newspaper’s effort to argue for the relevance of common law definitions of ‘confidential.'”

You can read the Supreme Court decision by clicking here.

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen Breyer dissented, believing the ruling disregards key provisions of FOIA, hindering the media’s and public’s ability to hold government accountable.

Cory Myers,  Argus Leader news director, said, “This is a massive blow to the public’s right to know how its tax dollars are being spent, and who is benefiting. Regardless, we will continue to fight for government openness and transparency, as always.”

Living Media Ethics (Routledge/Taylor & Francis) discusses in several chapters how journalists use FOIA in investigations. The Act was signed into law in 1966 by President Lyndon Johnson.  You can review provisions and learn how to use FOIA at this URL.

In an excerpt from Living Media EthicsMiles Moffeit, investigative reporter for The Dallas Morning News, notes that businesses and government agencies often withhold information from the public. “We have to double down on our mission to hold public servants accountable,” Moffeit says. “Reporters have a huge responsibility to stretch ourselves as watchdogs, and to champion the vulnerable, as well as ourselves as guardians of democracy.”

Given the ruling in Food Marketing Institute v. Argus Leader, reporters now will have to work harder to serve the public in their watchdog role.


Media Ethics Resources Available via YouTube Channel

Living Media Ethics shares video resources that help students write, create and showcase their values in digital products, procuring top internships and media positions.

Visit this site to access instructional videos about:

Writing Concisely, Accurately and Visually. You will learn how modern languages (German, English, Mandarin) inform the composition process. You’ll also become acquainted with rhetorical terms from creative nonfiction that will make your writing stand out in print or on the web.

Displaying Your Own Ethical Heraldry. If you do not have familial heraldry or, perhaps, would revise the one associated with your surname, you can create your own moral motto and display your personal iconic imagery to help you remember the importance of ethical values at home, school and work.

Creating a Digital Portfolio with Ethics Tab. Any student vying for an internship or first media job should have a digital portfolio. If you add a personal code of ethics, aligned with your profession or dream job, you convey your work ethic as well as your skill sets. This video helps you assemble that WordPress portfolio, step-by-step.

View Sample Digital Portfolios. This video showcases various web pages of student portfolios at Iowa State University media ethics classes. You will find outstanding samples in advertising, journalism (all platforms) and public relations. Students include links to their portfolios on resumes and in social media (Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.).

More resources will be added to this channel in the Fall.

Living Media Ethics is published by Routledge/Taylor & Francis. If you teach media ethics and would like to view a sample copy, visit this link for more information.

Clipped Tweets Foster Stereotypes in Viral Political Age

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) remarks to the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR)–“Some people did something”–reminds us yet again how clipped remarks out of context can foster stereotypes, even when a speech attempts to dispel them in the Muslim community.  What can media and practitioners do to recognize and minimize fallout?

The Washington Post video above and its coverage of Omar’s March 23rd speech at a CAIR banquet illustrates how a tweet–in and of itself, a “clipped” platform allowing only 280 characters– can ignite viral and inflammatory reactions across platforms, ultimately risking safety of an elected U.S. representative.

The Post article and fact-check discusses the danger of clipped remarks that eventually led to tens of thousands of retweets and likes, prompting Brian Kilmeade of “Fox and Friends” to state: “You have to wonder if she’s an American first.”

Here is the paragraph upon which tweets were based, with an error on Omar’s part about the founding of CAIR (1994, not after 9/11):

“Here’s the truth. For far too long we have lived with the discomfort of being a second-class citizen and, frankly, I’m tired of it, and every single Muslim in this country should be tired of it. CAIR was founded after 9/11 because they recognized that some people did something and that all of us were starting to lose access to our civil liberties. So you can’t just say that today someone is looking at me strange and that I am trying to make myself look pleasant. You have to say that this person is looking at me strange, I am not comfortable with it, and I am going to talk to them and ask them why. Because that is the right you have.”

Omar spokesperson Jeremy Slevin later acknowledged that the Congresswoman erred and meant to state that CAIR doubled in size after the 9/11 attacks. That error illustrates that facts are important in political communication just as they are in journalism.

The media and social media attention to the clipped remarks intensified when President Donald Trump tweeted “WE WILL NEVER FORGET!”

That prompted House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to consult with the Sergeant at Arms to ensure that Omar’s safety is assessed because of threats to her and her family, according to CNN and other news reports.

The escalating situation is a reminder that Twitter, in particular, is rife with stereotypes and that journalists and public relations practitioners have an ethical obligation to depict situations accurately and be proactively as soon as stereotypes go viral.

A recent “reverse stereotype” study showed that the gender, age and political orientation can be discerned by a big data sample of a person’s text-language use on Twitter (no photos, videos, etc.):

  • Gender: 76% of the guesses were correct.
  • Age: 69% predicted ‘younger than 24 vs. older than 24’ correctly
  • Political orientation: 82% judged liberal vs. conservative correctly.

The study also showed that big data was of no help ascertaining the educational level of users, with only “45.5% judged correctly out of three choices—no bachelor’s degree, bachelor’s degree, and advanced degree.”

To be sure, people of all educational levels are capable of using stereotypical speech.

Living Media Ethics has a chapter on stereotypes with advice for advertisers, journalists and PR practitioners. Here’s an excerpt that includes content about resisting stereotypes adapted from guidelines by the Center for Integration and Improvement of Journalism:

  • Apply consistent guidelines when identifying people by race, sex, social class or other such category. Are the terms considered offensive? Ask individual sources how they wish to be identified and also consult with a supervisor, if appropriate.
  • Strive to present an accurate and full report to your readers, viewers, listeners, clients and customers.
  • Don’t overemphasize issues. For example, overemphasizing crime can perpetuate stereotypes, especially if minorities are depicted as the perpetrators.
  • Do cover a variety of stories about minorities, not just those related to race, and depict or quote minorities in non-race related photographs, advertisements, illustrations and campaigns.
  • Find out how issues affect different segments of society.
  • Expand your contact lists. Include minorities who can provide authoritative opinions for a variety of subjects.

Detective to Discuss Case of Subway Pitchman Jared Fogle

Indiana State Police Detective Kevin Getz, a former journalism student of Living Media Ethics author Michael Bugeja, will visit classes at Iowa State University on Wednesday to discuss his role in the 2015 arrest of Subway pitchman Jared Fogle on child pornography charges.

Indiana State Police Detective Kevin Getz will present a case study to Iowa State students in Media Ethics and in Technology and Social Change, exploring investigative methods and forensic analysis in the arrest of former Subway spokesman Jared Fogle and former Jared Foundation Executive Director Russell Taylor.

Getz will discuss details of the arrest, including how he and other authorities prevented additional crimes that led to the rescue of 14 children.

In 2014, Getz was contacted by a woman whom Taylor had befriended, sharing text messages with her containing disturbing sexual content. The woman decided to contact authorities when Taylor asked if he could send her child pornography.

Based on those messages, Getz and other authorities arrested Taylor who was sentenced to 27 years in prison.

That arrest eventually led Getz and authorities to Fogle, sentenced to 15 years in prison on charges associated with child pornography and sexual conduct involving minors.

Living Media Ethics contains sections on the concept of justice and the media’s role in informing society about crimes against children and others. Here’s an excerpt about the importance of justice as the highest philosophical goal of culture and community:

Justice is the byproduct of the fairness process. When performed impartially, the end result of fairness restores balance, makes things whole, sets things right. Many philosophers, not to mention media professionals, believe that life is unfair; truth, relative; and objectivity, impossible. But they still embrace justice whose roots trace back to Aristotle who professed that justice was the preeminent objective for humankind because our cultures and communities are inherently social.

Living Media Ethics also includes content on how corporate practitioners deal with crisis management, such as Subway had to contend with in the aftermath of Fogle’s arrest. The book advises spokespersons to exercise objectivity in learning facts of a crisis and to consider fairness to all parties in any public response.

Detective Getz will discuss how journalists and Subway corporate headquarters dealt with the Fogle affair.

Getz is a 1990 graduate of Ohio University’s Scripps School of Journalism. He joined the Indiana State Police in 1993. He also served in the Criminal Investigation Division before his current assignment with the Indiana Crimes Against Children Unit. Getz and his wife Deborah have three children, Elizabeth, Thomas and Katie. Thomas Getz is a sophomore studying civil engineering at Iowa State.

Iowa State Alumna to Describe Experience Covering Execution

Danielle Ferguson, Sioux Falls Argus Leader reporter, will return to campus April 1 to relate her experience as a pool reporter covering the execution last year of Rodney Berget. She is pictured here (left/center with phone) as student editor upon being informed the Iowa State Daily was named “best in the country” in the 2015 Mark of Excellence competition.

Danielle Ferguson was a senior at McCook Central High School in Salem, S.D., in 2011 when Rodney Berget was implicated in the fatal beating of prison guard Ronald Johnson at the South Dakota State Penitentiary. Berget at the time was serving a life sentence for attempted murder and kidnapping. He and a fellow inmate, Eric Robert, failed in their escape attempt. Robert was executed in 2012.

By Oct. 29, 2018, Ferguson already had graduated Iowa State’s Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication, working for two years as a crime reporter for the Sioux Falls Argus Leader.

In this account, published in the Argus Leader, Ferguson describes her demeanor as media witness covering the execution of 56-year-old Berget:

I’m not here to tell you about my individual thoughts on the death penalty or the justice system. My objective is to share my experience of what happened to give you a look into the process. Journalists as “pool reporters” have a unique responsibility in executions. We must serve as witnesses for the public and rest of the media.  … I was aware of my role and prepared to carry it out.

To prepare for her visit, students in Iowa State’s Media Ethics class were asked to read up on capital punishment and to view these charts from the fact sheet provided by the Death Penalty Information Center.

This chart documents the number of executions in the United States since 1976 when the death penalty was reinstated after a four-year hiatus during which the U.S. Supreme Court commuted death sentences to life imprisonment.

This chart documents the race of those executed and the race of victims in death penalty cases.

The Information Center also reports that some 160 people have been exonerated since 1973 because of new evidence in their cases. Between 1973-1999, that represented about three exonerations per year. Between 2000-2011, the average rose to five exonerations per year.

The Center publishes other statistics associated with capital punishment, including the methods used since 1976:

  • 1316 Lethal Injection
  • 160 Electrocution
  • 11 Gas Chamber
  • 3 Hanging
  • 3 Firing Squad

As of 2017, 53 women were on death row, less than 2% of that demographic, with 16 executed since 1976.

Living Media Ethics advises reporters and editors on coverage of executions. Reporters are expected to mask their emotions, although some have cried or become nauseated. Some suffered short-term psychological trauma.

Reporters who serve as media witnesses should follow these guidelines, drawn from several online sources:

    • Fill notebooks with everything, no matter how insignificant it seems. Details in execution stories are important for the public to know.
    • Don’t forget to mention key points in your execution story: the crime, the victim, the victim’s family and the trial. The murder may have taken place 10 or 15 years earlier. Track everyone down before the execution.
    • Record family and victim reactions during the execution.
    • You will have to tell others, as a source, what you witnessed as pool reporter.
    • Ask for downtime after the coverage. If you need counseling, get it.

The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma notes that young journalists like Ferguson “will often encounter violence among their first reporting experiences,” risking  Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder lasting a month or more.

The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs has posted an article titled “Journalists and PTSD,” noting the assumption that “journalists are not permanently impacted by the events they cover” and that they are “somehow immune to the reverberating impact of the human suffering they witness.” The article also challenges the convention that reporters “would be thought of as weak and less capable than his or her colleagues” if they acknowledged their emotions in covering events such as executions.

The article cites research about coping behaviors, including seeking help, writing about the experience, accepting support from other journalists and taking advantage of resources offered by the Dart Center.

Investigative journalism sheds light on Boeing MAX 8 crashes

Over-reliance on technology and questionable FAA oversight were linked to two crashes that killed more than 300 people. The second crash occurred 11 days after the Seattle Times questioned Boeing about safety flaws.


Technology was not only suspect in the failure of two Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft; it also played a role in pilot training.

In the “Today” video above, pilots reportedly received training in a 56-minute online iPad lesson about an aircraft whose faulty software also was suspected in causing the crashes of the Lion Air in October and Ethiopian Airlines earlier this month.

Worse, some pilots were not informed about certain safety software systems installed on their planes. According to Politico, U.S. pilots had complained at least five times about controlling the aircraft during critical stages of flight.

A particular distressing factor in the two crashes concerned additional safety features that required a pricey upgrade in airlines purchasing the MAX 8, according to the New York Times: “As the pilots of the doomed Boeing jets in Ethiopia and Indonesia fought to control their planes, they lacked two notable safety features in their cockpits. One reason: Boeing charged extra for them.”

The Times noted that upgrades typically do not involve safety–more bathrooms, for instance; in the aftermath of the crashes, Boeing will not charge extra for one of those features, in an attempt to get the MAX 8 airborne again.

Eleven days before the second crash, Seattle Times reporter Dominic Gates had informed Boeing about questions concerning the power of the flight control system, designed to push the nose of the aircraft down to avert a stall. He had also learned a system reset function that could override a pilot’s response, causing the plane’s nose to keep pushing downward.

His investigative report also disclosed failed oversight by the Federal Aviation Administration:

The FAA, citing lack of funding and resources, has over the years delegated increasing authority to Boeing to take on more of the work of certifying the safety of its own airplanes.

His report illustrates the importance of fact-based journalism in a case where common sense–a distinctly human trait–was overridden by machines. This applies not only to inadequate online training, especially on tablets with insistent pinging and notifications, but also to the FAA that allowed the MAX 8 to fly after the Ethiopian Airlines crash.

One aircraft falling from the skies might have gotten the FAA’s attention; a second similar craft doing the exact same thing–pilots struggling to aright their jet–should have set off alarms.

Nevertheless, the FAA initially didn’t act after countries around the globe had grounded the MAX 8 after the second crash. This might have occurred because the Administration is “data-driven” and data from the black box of the Ethiopian Airlines crash was not immediately available.

In an interview with NPR, Peter Goelz, former managing director of the National Transportation Safety Board, said “the FAA has really prided itself on being a data-driven organization, that they don’t make ad hoc decisions” on “anecdotal evidence.” He added, the FAA has “a close working and regulatory relationship with Boeing.”

That relationship may be too close. Last week the FBI opened a criminal investigation into the certification of the Boeing 737 MAX 8.

Living Media Ethics (Routledge 2019) has sections on the influence of technology on perception as well as the importance of investigative journalism in holding government and business accountable.

That’s precisely what the Seattle Times did in its Boeing investigation.