Author: Michael Bugeja

Biased Cropping

Ugandan climate activist Vanessa Nakate–cropped out of a news conference photo at Davos, Switzerland–says she now understands the meaning of the word, “racism.” The AP initially defended the crop to focus more on Greta Thunberg and to remove a building behind Nakate. It issued a second apology and will focus on diversity training.

Nakate and other activists, including Thunberg, were photographed at the World Economic Forum on Jan. 24.

Sally Buzbee, executive editor, said the AP regretted the error, adding diversity and inclusion will be one of the organization’s top priorities.

Thunberg supported Nakate, reportedly stating: “You didn’t just erase a person. You erased a continent.”

The Guardian published a video in which Nakate spoke about how the crop affected her.

In the video she states: “This is the first time in my life that I understand the definition of the word ‘racism.’ And they have the guts to change the photo rather than give an explanation or apology. Does this mean that I have no value as an African activist?”

Soon after the photo was criticized on social media, the AP issued an apology, stating:

“As a news organization, we care deeply about accurately representing the world that we cover. We train our journalists to be sensitive to issues of inclusion and omission. We have spoken internally with our journalists and we will learn from this error in judgment.”

Several viewers questioned the tone of the apology. Later, the AP later agreed with that assessment. Buzbee then issued a more personal apology: “Vanessa, on behalf of the AP, I want to say how sorry I am that we cropped that photo and removed you from it. It was a mistake that we realize silenced your voice, and we apologize. We will all work hard to learn from this.”

From a media ethics perspective, the AP employee who cropped the photo may have been focused on Thunberg as a worldwide celebrity rather than as a climate activist at a shared news conference. The building was not a distraction from a news perspective; the cropped photo deleted an important source in the photo, Nakate, and gave the false impression that only four people spoke at the news conference.

In this case, the camera captured reality; but the crop skewed it, triggering questions about racism, not only from social media but from Nakate herself.

News executives also must understand how to deal with errors of this magnitude. Any mistake, intentional or unintentional, should result in an apology in sincere rather than defensive tone. When any error involves the specter of bias or racism, that is cause for alarm, necessitating conscientious apologies followed by diversity training to prevent similar errors in the future. While training is vital, hiring more journalists and photographers of color should also be made a priority.

According to the Pew Research Center,  a mere 7% of newsroom employees are black while 11% of all U.S. workers overall are black. The percentage rises to 12% in local television newsrooms. Only 6% are news directors, up from 2% in 1995.

Black Americans are underrepresented as newsroom employees in the U.S.

Living Media Ethics has chapters on bias, racism, diversity and inclusion in addition to a chapter on fairness and apologies.


Technology, Ethics and Kobe Bryant’s Death

Should a news organization have broadcast the basketball star’s death before family were officially informed?

Should Bryant’s sexual assault charge have been mentioned in initial accounts of his passing in a crash that also killed his 13-year-old daughter and seven others?

These are legitimate questions concerning the death of basketball great Kobe Bryant, 41, who perished with his daughter and seven others in a helicopter crash en route to a sports event.

It is standard media practice to wait until officials notify family members of a loved one’s passing. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that this did not happen, publishing a screenshot of the tweet above by a sheriff’s deputy.

Internet, social media and satellite broadcasting have changed standard practice at some but not all news agencies, especially when the death is sudden and concerns a celebrity.

Kobe Bryant was one of basketball’s greatest athletes. The pressure to report was intense. But nonetheless, doing so before family members were informed is ethically suspect.

Scoops were important in the age of legacy media, especially print, when competitors might take hours or even a day or more to match a story. It meant that your outlet had reporters in the field or at the site of spot news. The audience could rely on the outlet’s being first and informing you before others in the spirit of the public’s right to know.

In the digital age, being first to report has a different advantage. It keeps viewers on your channel or website for the inevitable flood of updates and analyses about breaking news.

In this type of environment, news outlets again are dealing with the acceleration of time, an illusion of technology. Everything must be immediate.

It is perfectly ethical for an outlet to wait until authorities notify relatives. That remains the standard. Consider the impact in this case on Bryant’s family, perhaps hearing about their relatives’ deaths from Facebook, Twitter, email, text, video messaging and phone calls.

It must have been harrowing.

It is also true that accelerated time affects what news commentators say about celebrities, even upon first learning about their passing.

CNN’s sports analyst Christine Brennan gave a retrospective five-minute analysis about Bryant soon after his death was reported by TMZ and mainstream media. Within that time frame, Brennan did briefly mention the 2003 sexual assault case, stating: “And, of course, there are issues, while it seems difficult to mention at the moment of his death that we’re talking about the sexual assault allegations, the trial — that was a terrible moment, and that was not good, obviously. I’m not going to sugar-coat that at all.”

Brennan was referencing a charge that Bryant raped a 19-year-old hotel employee. Charges were dropped when the woman did not testify against him. A civil suit was filed and settled out of court.

The CNN reference to the case was made in a report that still fell under the category of spot news. Viewers still learning about his death anticipated a different analysis.

Nevertheless, this wasn’t the first time that the case was mentioned in recent years. Upon Bryant’s 2016 retirement, in the midst of celebrating his sports legacy, The Daily Beast published a full account.

From an ethics perspective, the assault should be mentioned in Bryant’s obituary. It was a major national story.

But again, technology accelerated time. After reporting his death, online news went right into obit mode. In the past there would have been a spot news report about the crash and perhaps the next day, an obituary with the rape case mentioned therein along with other aspects of Bryant’s life.

Mentioning the case while reporting spot news–even before or shortly after his family had heard of his passing–angered some viewers trying to absorb the tragedy that also claimed the life of his daughter, Gianna Maria Onore.

Categories of news have their place, even in the digital era. When spot news combines with obituary in a digital milieu rife with omnipresent commentary by analysts and talking heads, questions are sure to arise.

This will happen again because technology changes everything it touches, including media ethics. It accelerates time. Everything is immediate. Sometimes truth comes across as untimely, at least in the moment.

The Best Performance of Student Newspaper Journalism

Editor’s Note: There are many examples of independent student journalism but none seemingly surpass that of the 1980 staff of the O’Collegian at Oklahoma State University. Living Media Ethics author Michael Bugeja was media adviser to the newspaper at the time. On April 24, the bulletin bells clanged on the tickertape of our wire service machines. President Jimmy Carter had launched a rescue mission to save 52 hostages in the Embassy in Tehran. It happened after morning newspapers had gone to bed, so that meant no coverage apart from television in the pre-internet days. The following content was posted originally on Facebook as reporters 40 years later remembered their special issue. What makes this special? Students not only scooped the mainstream media with one of the first accounts; the delivery trucks were not due until late in the afternoon. Students were undeterred. They went to the press room and got bundles of newspapers and delivered them to advertisers, residence halls, community and campus buildings. They did this in an Oklahoma thunderstorm. Here is their story, the epitome of zeal.

Zeal matters: Journalism is a calling and so must be pursued with passion. Otherwise, you will burn out when your candle burns at both ends.” — Michael Bugeja, O’Colly media adviser

On April 24, 1980, Operation Eagle Claw was launched to rescue 52 hostages being held at the Embassy in Tehran. The mission was a failure. There was no Internet at the time. And when the news hit the wire at the Daily O’Collegian, the next day’s newspapers already had gone to press. So there would be no morning newspaper stories about the aborted mission.

Larry Solomon, editor that night, called me at home. We could not find the editor-in-chief or the managing editor; but Larry rode around Stillwater, waking up student reporters and bringing enough back to the newsroom to put out a special edition.


We telephoned military and government sources as if we were a national wire service. Our editorial cartoonist read wire service reports and drew a representation of what had happened. All-night dinners and cafes, some of them our advertisers, gave us food as we worked until dawn to report the news. Students went to the press room and watched the special edition roll off the presses. Then they realized something. We had no delivery trucks. They were not due until the afternoon. Worse, a thunderstorm had broken out, adding to the drama.

The freshman news writing reporting class arrived in the lab adjacent to the newsroom. They were pulled out of class and given addresses from our distribution map. Each student got a bundle of papers. Out they went.

Afterward, students went to the student union and saw the best evidence of the power of the press. You could not see a face. Everyone had a copy of the O’Colly fanned out–a veritable sea of newspaper front pages across rows and rows of tables.

Later the students learned that their newspaper was one of the first–and some said THE first–to report the news in print. Not only did these students beat the competition nationally, they delivered the newspapers to all of our advertisers, residence halls, campus buildings and town distribution boxes. In an Oklahoma thunderstorm!

Journalism is a calling. Many of the students on staff that evening went on to stellar careers in journalism, advertising and public relations. They still remember that night and special edition. It defined them. It bespoke the obligation of reporters to work tirelessly for the audience in the interest of democracy.

They set the standard for future generations.

Those students exist. It is up to teachers and internship advisers to nurture their zeal. That’s what Living Media Ethics does, chapter after chapter.


We have a constitutional right to pursue happiness but many don’t know how


Declaration of Independence
The United States of America’s Declaration of Independence. Photo by Getty Images.

Every January, we wish each other “Happy New Year” with the focus on the year instead of on happiness. 

Happiness is a distinct American virtue. It is one of three natural rights along with life and liberty in the Declaration of Independence whose author, Thomas Jefferson, never explained what he meant by pursuing it. 

Jefferson’s notion of rights was based, in part, on the philosophy of John Locke who believed in life, liberty and estate. Jefferson borrowed from the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which mentions “the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.”

“Property” is one of those dubious words with dissimilar meanings, as in owning something, specifically land, or harboring an intrinsic trait.  

Benjamin Franklin, who helped edit the Declaration of Independence, is purported to have dissuaded Jefferson from using “the pursuit of property.” Franklin’s litmus test was a tax. You could levy one on an estate but not a state of being.

Jefferson also drew inspiration from James Madison who believed conscience was “the most sacred of all property.”  

There’s that word again. What could the founders possibly have meant?

Many of us pursued things and goods, property, during the gift-giving holidays. That’s the tradition. Even the most desired present — a first car, last house payment, the long-anticipated engagement ring — will make us happy … for a while. Then we will return to our normal state of being, our genetic set point for happiness. 

As Jonathan Haidt notes in “The Happiness Hypothesis,” some of us are predisposed to be happy, winning what he calls “the cortical lottery.” The rest of us didn’t lose. We just have fewer winning numbers in our DNA. 

Happiness is fleeting, even for the best of us. That is why it must be pursued. 

If you want to accelerate that pursuit, show gratitude. You can increase your happiness level as much as 25%.

I raised my happiness set point last month because of a Christmas gift that the U.S. Postal Service sent to the wrong destination.

I needed that present for my wife and had spent days browsing online to find just the right one. The parcel went from New York to Des Moines and then, for some inexplicable reason, to San Juan, Puerto Rico, instead of Ames, Iowa. 

I called my local post office, and they put an intercept on the package. It was late, but I got it in time for the holidays.

Instead of being irritated, I went to the bakery and ordered a sheet cake inscribed: “Thank you, Ames Post Office!”

I took my 17-year-old son with me and waited in line behind people bearing priority mail gifts. When we were called to the counter, my son gave the cake to the surprised clerk.

The rest of our day was routine, but we felt as if we had won something.  

Here are 10 ways to show gratitude:

  1. Contact a person who changed the course of your life and tell them what it meant to you. 
  2. Pay a visit or write a letter to your favorite K-12 teacher, remembering the role that they played in your educational development.
  3. Start a gratitude journal, listing at least once per week all the things you are thankful for in your life.   
  4. Keep track of all the kind deeds and words that people do and say to you in the course of your day. You may be surprised at how many such gestures are made when we are on the lookout for them. 
  5. Go for an entire day without criticizing others in your household, workplace or online. Instead, compliment people when occasion arises. 
  6. Make eye contact and be gracious to all you normally might overlook in your routine: the barista with your coffee, the store clerk with your order, the bank teller with your withdrawal, and so on. 
  7. Volunteer at a soup kitchen or participate in a community service project, making new friends in the process. 
  8. Deliver a donation in person to your favorite charity and ask for a tour of facilities. Show appreciation to staff and clients alike. 
  9. Spend quality time with a child. Play a board game. Sing. Dance. Color.
  10. Pay attention to pets, especially dogs, whose happy disposition is boundless. Don’t have a pet? Visit the animal shelter. You might return home with one.

The properties of happiness are self-evident and undeniable. Pursue them mindfully and discover what America stands for.

Emotional Toll of Execution Coverage

EDITOR’S NOTE: Iowa State alumna Danielle Ferguson, watchdog reporter for Argus Media, explains the after-effects of execution coverage, a topic journalists seldom address. In October 2018, she was one of three reporters to witness the execution of Rodney Berget. The video below includes her perceptions, which she shared shortly afterward with Michael Bugeja’s media ethics classes. This year, she wrote about the Charles Rhines’ execution, which she did not witness but nevertheless experienced. Once again Ferguson agreed to share her personal story with Dr. Bugeja’s students studying “evil and social justice.” Ferguson’s exemplary professionalism is testament to the dedication of journalists reporting in the public’s interest.

By Danielle Ferguson

Last year, I was a media witness to the execution of Rodney Berget. I spent a few weeks mentally preparing myself for watching the state of South Dakota kill someone. I was incredibly nervous, but, surprisingly, didn’t experience many noticeable after-effects. The most notable was that I associated the chair he was strapped into to a dentist’s chair, and went to the dentist a few weeks after the execution and was hesitant to sit down.

This year, I spent about a month previewing Charles’ Rhines execution, reminding the public about the crime for which he was to be put to death. I wasn’t a media witness. South Dakota Dept. of Corrections policy says that a member of the AP and a member of the media from the town in which the crime happened are witnesses. This crime didn’t occur in Sioux Falls.

This year, because I wasn’t a media witness, I felt that I didn’t have to mentally prepare. I thought, “It’s another criminal justice report. Just report what happens.”

I spent weeks reading about every death penalty case to recount the death penalty’s history in our state. I spent days reading court documents about Charles Rhines’ multiple appeals: a claim of jury bias because of anti-gay comments made during his 1993 trial, a desire to choose the drug by which he was to be killed and a claim that he never got a real shot at clemency. I spoke with national experts and local experts. I ended up with about 15 bylines for this execution.

I spent 14 hours at the S.D. State Penitentiary Monday, Nov. 4. Rhines’ had three U.S. Supreme Court appeals (Berget had just one), and the execution originally scheduled for 1:30 p.m. didn’t occur until about 7:30 p.m. (Click here for a synopsis of all three appeals.)

I spent all day constantly refreshing the U.S. Supreme Court page, racing against the other media in the penitentiary room to try and be the first to provide an update. We spoke with protesters. It was a long day.

I broke when I read Rhines’ last meal.

  • Fried chicken
  • Cantaloupe or musk melon
  • Lefse, with butter
  • Yogurt (strawberry and cherry)
  • Black licorice
  • Cookies and cream ice cream
  • Root beer
  • Coffee with cream and sugar

There is something so deeply humanizing about someone’s choice for a last meal. Lefse is a Norwegian staple, basically a potato pancake. It’s something my family makes from scratch every Thanksgiving. I had to briefly leave the room when I saw that list.

After speaking with the family of the victim, 22-year-old Donnivan Schaeffer, I surprisingly felt better. They had released their anger years ago, and hearing their attitude of gratefulness for the time they got with Donnivan was touching. I spoke with them at length after the execution. They responded to Rhines’ last words:

“Ed and Peggy Schaeffer, I forgive you for your anger and hatred toward me. I pray to God that he forgives you for your anger and hatred toward me.”

Peggy shook her head in disbelief. “He forgives us?” she said. “Isn’t that something.” And then she returned to telling everyone about how amazing her son was.

I had nightmares for about a week after this execution. I had dreams Rhines and other killers I have written about found me in my apartment and killed me the way they killed their victims. In my dreams, Rhines said he killed me because of all the stories I wrote about him (in much more violent terms). I would wake myself up every night because I was screaming.

I was surprised at my reaction. That I could cry at the death of this man, yet at the same time fear him for the crime he committed.

I’ve started seeing a counselor, who has talked with me about moral injury, and the effects I experience constantly looking for, reading about and reporting on that are conflicting to my personal moral standards. I personally am against rape and murder, and the fact I research, write about and speak with survivors on a regular basis does damage to my conscience. It’s been interesting to learn about and consider it when I’m reporting.

This execution impacted me more so than Berget’s. That may be because I have more knowledge of the criminal justice system in general and more experience reporting on the death penalty. It may be because multiple national experts said Rhines’ death was unconstitutional, and they were appalled the state of South Dakota would kill someone with a conviction that included jury comments of anti-gay bias.

In all, I feel this experience has put a greater weight to my job overall. Rhines’ case could be instrumental in future death penalty arguments, and I can only hope we documented this event as accurately and wholly as possible.


From Michael Bugeja’s Lecture on “Evil and Social Justice”:

Reporters who cover executions typically may express a variety of emotions, including crying or becoming violently nauseated. They can suffer short-term psychological trauma. Emotional detachment, preferred by most reporters, may lead to PTSD. Reporters who cover executions should be given down-time, typically a week off, to process what they experienced and should be encouraged to see counseling for any after-effects. Finally, they should take advantage of resources by the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma.

Teaching Assistant Shares His DACA Story

This month the Supreme Court is set to hear oral arguments about DACA, otherwise known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a government policy that protects undocumented people from deportation. Author Michael Bugeja’s graduate teaching assistant, Hugo Bolaños, has a personal interest in the outcome and explains that below to U.S. students.

By Hugo Bolaños

As you all know, we have been covering some very key topics in Media Ethics that you will digest and continue to use far beyond your years here at Iowa State University. The background, philosophy and history that Dr. Michael Bugeja is presenting in class will help us understand issues of diversity, equity and inclusion on deeper levels that will inform us at the workplace.

Our lectures in “Bias and Diversity” are not only important, but also necessary. That said, I want to share my story, so that you are aware of how legal decisions, such as the impending one in the U.S. Supreme Court, affects someone that you know: your teaching assistant.

The Iowa State Daily did a story about me two years ago while I was an undergrad, about DACA, and how I live with it every day. Its title is, “Every day I’m terrified .”

Here is the video that accompanied that story.

DACA, or “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals,” is an executive order put in place by President Barack Obama in 2012. To be eligible, undocumented recipients typically were brought to the United States as children. This must have occurred before their 16th birthday and prior to June 2007. They must be under the age of 31 as of June 15, 2012, and be currently in school, a high school graduate or be honorably discharged from the military. They must not have been convicted of a felony, significant misdemeanor or three other misdemeanors, or otherwise pose a threat to national security.

Currently, the program does not provide permanent lawful status or a path to citizenship, nor does it provide eligibility for federal welfare or student aid. DACA must be renewed every two years, with the renewal process evaluating all requirements to remain in the program.

As you may assume from reading this, I currently do have DACA status. Because I am employed at the Greenlee School, I fulfill a key DACA requirement. But I am still susceptible to changes in the law. That is why I am closely following the Supreme Court decision.

I am sharing my story here for another reason. In class, we have been discussing the 14th Amendment in Media Ethics, which reads:

14th Amendment: All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Those words are important to me. You may be a citizen of the United States and not fully appreciate your own privileges and immunities. This is why I decided to share my personal journey, which advances our class discussions and provides perspective for you.

I am not asking you to choose a political side as to the debate of so-called “dreamers.” That term has a history, too. The DREAM Act (or Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act) would provide a process to give people like me, who came to the United States as children, residency status. The bipartisan bill has been introduced several times in Congress, but continues to fail.

While I do not ask you to choose a political side, I do hope for one thing in my role as graduate teaching assistant: That my story will have perhaps touched your conscience through the ethical principle of empathy, which we also study in class, putting you in my situation so that you can understand DACA on a more personal level.

Taglines Undermine Mizzou’s Diversity Effort

University of Missouri’s Athletic Department tried to promote diversity but sparked dissent with mishandled taglines. Meaning matters. Think critically, fact check and seek a second opinion before posting on social media.

The intent of the tweet was proactive, celebrating diversity by promoting aspirations of athletes. It had the opposite effect.

Included in the photo above were track athlete Arielle Mack, depicted with the slogan “I am an African American woman.” Ticket office employee Chad Jones-Hicks appeared above the statement, “I value equality.” The tagline for white gymnast Chelsey Christensen read “I am a future doctor”; the one for swimmer C.J. Kovac, proclaimed, “I am a future corporate financer (sic).”

The misspelling of “financier” indicates lack of fact-checking. Had someone analyzed each word of the post, perhaps disparities could have been avoided.  To be sure, Mack and Jones-Hicks have aspirations on par with Christensen and Kovac, but instead the emphasis there was on race.

Anything on internet can go viral, undermining intent and tainting an organization’s reputation. Clearly, Mizzou Athletics wanted to celebrate diversity and never meant the post to be misinterpreted.

According to the Washington Post, the tweet was based on a video containing this quote from Mack:  “I am an African American woman, a sister, a daughter, a volunteer and a future physical therapist.” The tagline, of course, should have been “future physical therapist.”

The Athletic Department apologized for the tweet with another tweet containing a video upon which the errant post was based:

The video, a professional product, has much to commend it. However, the stereotypical tweet undermined that effort.

Perhaps one errant tagline could be forgiven; but in this case, there were three.

In the above video, Sprinter Caulin Graves said, “I am a brother, uncle and best of all, I am a leader [emphasis added].” Here is how he was depicted:


There is little excuse here in the depiction of African American athletes. But there are remedies. Vincent Filak, who covered the Missouri tweets in the Dynamics of Writing websitehas these recommendations:

  • Scrutinize each word of any post to guard against stereotypes.
  • Ask for a second opinion if you unsure that you are disparaging anyone.
  • Run the content by a source included in the content for his or her opinion.
  • Talk to an expert who may have insight or advice on inclusion.

Filak adds, “Even if your newsroom, your PR firm or your ad agency doesn’t have a cornucopia of diversity, you can still avoid dumb mistakes by asking for help.”

Living Media Ethics has a chapter on bias in addition to sections on equity and inclusion associated with fairness, social justice and value systems. When it comes to social media posts about diversity, take time, fact check and think critically … or risk being the target of criticism.