Each semester students in Michael Bugeja’s media ethics class earn extra credit by participating in an experiment—contacting a loved one, family member, mentor or friend and expressing gratitude. You can read a published article about past gratitude experiments by clicking here.
The purpose of the exercise is to instill in students the means to raise their own happiness quotient. Gratitude typically gladdens us along with the person to whom we express our feelings.
Few people take the time to thank a person who played a big role in their lives. It could be a teacher. A parent. A friend.
Students are told that they can increase their happiness multifold by writing a gratitude letter and then reading it to a cherished person, preferably in person or via telephone or facetime.
After the call, they record their own feelings.
Here are the data from the Fall 2022 media ethics class:
7 participants reported a positive experience and increase in mood after the exercise. 9 participants reported feeling more relaxed or having a weight lifted off of them. 9 participants felt thankful or appreciative of the experiment. 3 participants reported wanting to do this more.
Few media outlets fathomed the impact of the court’s decision on one of the most treasured doctrines of democracy.
Bernadette Meyler, Stanford Law School professor, published a scathing critique of Justice Samuel Alito, who wrote for the majority in Dobbs. “His opinion adduced 19th-century state statutes restricting abortion as evidence that the right to obtain an abortion was not part of a constitutionally protected liberty interest.”
Meyler believes the Dobbs decision might erode other rights on similar grounds, including same-sex marriage — also protected by the 14th Amendment.
“All of these rights were established on the basis of a much broader conception of liberty, one capable of evolution rather than embalmed in the amber of history.”
We often hear the phrase “conflict of interest” pertaining to government officials violating their oath to serve the public interest.
According to the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, the most common conflicts involve officeholders voting on land use matters that impact their own holdings. “Other examples include voting to grant a benefit to a company in which the officeholder owns stock or even to a non-profit organization on whose board the officeholder may sit.”
In those cases, officials are expected to abstain from discussion and voting, recusing themselves.
When they do not, they violate the public trust and the common good, defined as resources a community provides to residents. These include road systems, public safety and transport, educational and cultural facilities, and clean air and water.
Journalists also are expected to serve the public and common good. Typically, they deal with these types of conflicts:
Junkets, or an expenses-paid trip so that a reporter can cover an event.
Freebies, or gifts like free meals or tickets, to befriend or influence coverage.
Bribes, or outright payment or promise to buy services or goods from a media outlet in return for some favor.
Professors at Iowa’s three Regents universities also must serve the public interest and the common good. Many travel to conduct research or share scholarship at conferences. If travel is underwritten by a grant or university funds, they cannot use the occasion — in part or whole — as a personal vacation, visiting relatives and friends.
If professors are invited to speak at a function with expenses paid for by organizers, they cannot fraudulently submit receipts for university reimbursement, too.
And of course they cannot receive bribes to tweak research so that it supports a donor’s product or service.
Iowa State University has a detailed website about conflicts of interest. These usually involve “circumstances where an individual’s professional actions or decisions at the university could be influenced by considerations of personal gain, usually of a financial nature, as a result of interests outside his/her university responsibilities.”
The remedy is transparency. ISU employees must submit a disclosure form detailing any potential conflict. For instance, we must report any management role in a non-ISU entity that funds scholarly activities.
One of the most common conflicts involves professors requiring students to buy their own textbooks. On the one hand, professors have a right to assign books for classes. On the other, they cannot do so for personal enrichment.
The ISU Faculty Handbook goes further. It states that “a faculty member who receives royalties or other direct remuneration for such a scholarly product may be faced with a conflict of interest when he/she is a participant in the decision to adopt the material for local use.”
Professors may use their texts in their classes if royalties are assigned to the university “or to a body mutually agreed upon by the university and the faculty member.”
The policy allows professors to keep royalties if they had no role in the selection process or can document “exceptional circumstances” approved by the department chair, appropriate dean and provost officials.
It is a good policy.
I do not assign any of my textbooks. Royalties from my “How-To News Writer,” published by the Iowa Newspaper Association, go into an ISU endowment managed by my director and the Iowa State Foundation.
I include a statement in my media ethics syllabus stating that content comes from many sources, including my texts, which they should not purchase. “Thus, you are receiving content for free in addition to years of updates from a variety of sources to ensure you have the best experience from many viewpoints.”
That’s the goal.
Finally, viewpoints here are mine. Professors cannot speak for the university or give the appearance that they are, for doing so would be another conflict of interest.
Everyone should know potential conflicts of interest associated with their businesses and work for the common good of their constituents and clients.
Accuracy: Work should be based on verifiable facts.
Independence: Work should be done on behalf of the people, not special interests.
Impartiality: Reporters should recognize there is more than one side — and often more than two sides — to every issue.
Humanity: Reporters should show compassion in dealings with the public and acknowledge the impact of their words.
Accountability: Reporters should take responsibility for mistakes and apologize to anyone hurt by their actions.
These tenets also apply to public officials and educators.
When we lose trust in journalism, the general welfare suffers.
The Pew Research Center has investigated that in a video documenting changes in the industry that impacted how news is produced and consumed.
The video explores the impact on the public interest, especially with the prevalence of social media and political partisanship. “Trust in America, in institutions, in each other is essential to the functioning of U.S. democracy. Yet today, trust is declining.”
Law enforcement is vital in protecting the public interest. When they fail in that obligation, or act in a partisan manner, we fear for the general welfare.
Between 2016-18, FBI employees accepted gifts in return for leaked information about former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s emails. She used a private account to send personal and official messages — a big story then.
An FBI investigation found that agents “improperly received benefits from reporters, including tickets to sporting events, golfing outings, drinks and meals, and admittance to nonpublic social events.” FBI’s policy designates who may disclose information to the media, but this was ignored.
Elected officials are responsible, singularly and collectively, for protecting the public interest.
It’s a federal crime to bribe a public official. Section 201 of Title 18 comprises two types of conflicts: bribes and gifts. 201(b) prohibits taking or giving anything of monetary value when the intent is to influence an official act. 201(c), concerns “gratuities” to gain favor for an official act. Bribe convictions are punishable by up to 15 years; a gratuity conviction, up to two years.
In the 1978-80 Abscam “sting” investigation, FBI agents posed as Arab sheiks bribing elected officials for political favors. Encounters were videotaped, as money was exchanged.
Some 30 politicians were convicted, including one senator, six representatives and the mayor of Camden, N.J.
More recently, former Illinois State Sen. Martin Sandoval pleaded guilty to bribery. He received $250,000 to block laws that could hurt a red-light camera company. He agreed to cooperate with authorities but died of COVID in 2020.
The 2019 “Varsity Blues” investigation targeted parents who paid millions to help get their children into top-ranked universities such as Yale, Stanford and Georgetown. Their entitlement deprived more worthy students of admission.
The New York Times reported that 57 parents, educators, coaches and other defendants were charged, with 54 convictions, one deferred prosecution and one pardoned by former President Donald J. Trump.
Then there is the case of Edward Ennels, sentenced to 10 years in prison, with nine suspended and five years’ probation, plus $60,000 restitution.
What did this math professor do at Baltimore City Community College?
Between 2013 to 2020, he sold academic access codes and received bribes in exchange for good grades. He concocted a fictional character who contacted students, offering to complete assignments for an “A.” Cost? $300.
“Ennels often haggled with students regarding the amount of the bribe, and set different prices based on the course and grade desired. For example, he would charge $150 for a C or $250 for a B or $500 for an A in a higher-level course.”
At Iowa State University, failure to report “known or suspected violations and crimes” is an ethical breach itself. The university is obligated to contact authorities with evidence of “fraud, conflict of interest, bribery, or gratuity.”
The vast majority of journalists, public officials and educators are ethical. Their positions in society are so vital that any infraction is scandalous.
As a citizen or resident, you have an obligation to protect the public interest. You should know about organizations that serve it.
George Washington created a model for civility. (Photo illustration by Iowa Capital Dispatch. Flag image via Canva. Washington portrait courtesy of the Library of Congress)
When George Washington was 6 years old, he received a hatchet as a gift and immediately tested it on his father’s cherry tree. His father saw the damaged tree and asked his son if he had done the deed. The boy confessed with his most famous maxim: “I cannot tell a lie.”
Nevertheless, Washington at age 14 copied in a notebook French maxims from the 16th century accepted as virtuous during his time. They became known as “110 Rules of Civility.”
To be sure, some of those maxims are hopelessly outdated, such as:
Spit not in the fire, nor stoop low before it, neither put your hands into the flames to warm them, nor set your feet upon the fire especially if there be meat before it.
But consider these worthy practices:
Every action done in company ought to be with some sign of respect, to those that are present.
Show nothing to your friend that may affright him.
Read no letters, books, or papers in company but when there is a necessity for the doing of it you must ask to leave.
Reproach none for the infirmities of nature.
Show not yourself glad at the misfortune of another though he were your enemy.
When you see a crime punished, you may be inwardly pleased; but always show pity to the suffering offender.
Do not laugh too loud or too much at any public spectacle.
Use no reproachful language against anyone, neither curse nor revile.
Be not hasty to believe flying reports to the disparagement of any.
Let your conversation be without malice or envy.
Think before you speak.
Be not curious to know the affairs of others, neither approach those that speak in private.
Undertake not what you cannot perform but be careful to keep your promise.
Can you name any current politician or public servant in the White House, Congress or Supreme Court who respects all in their presence; is considerate of others, no matter their station in life; stows away cell phones in public; shows compassion to enemies and offenders; refuses to spread rumors; acts without malice or envy; and keeps their promises?
Those should be qualifications for anyone seeking public office.
At the time of his death, Washington owned 123 slaves. Shortly before his death, he freed them and supported others in perpetuity who were too ill to find work.
Washington’s contributions to democracy are many, from his victory over the English at Yorktown in the Revolutionary War to his promises to the American people in his two terms as commander in chief.
Washington set as example for presidents to follow that they should leave office gracefully upon the completion of their terms, a tradition that continued until Donald. J. Trump and the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection.
To understand Washington’s essence, consider his second inaugural address, the shortest in history, at 135 words:
“Fellow Citizens: I am again called upon by the voice of my country to execute the functions of its Chief Magistrate. When the occasion proper for it shall arrive, I shall endeavor to express the high sense I entertain of this distinguished honor, and of the confidence which has been reposed in me by the people of united America.
“Previous to the execution of any official act of the President the Constitution requires an oath of office. This oath I am now about to take, and in your presence: That if it shall be found during my administration of the Government, I have in any instance violated willingly or knowingly the injunctions thereof, I may (besides incurring constitutional punishment) be subject to the upbraidings of all who are now witnesses of the present solemn ceremony.”
He promised to serve with dignity. If he violated his oath, he would duly suffer shame and punishment.
His most important tenet in the “Rules of Civility” is the final one, 110: “Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.”
Washington’s values — trust, respect, courtesy, dignity and honor — all fall under the moral umbrella of humility.
Philosophers define humility as an aspect of the conscience — that still, small voice guiding our actions — based on an inner knowledge of our own goodness and, more importantly, limitations. “Immodest people have, among other things, an inflated sense of themselves, their accomplishments, and their place in the world.”
That would define most politicians and their bombast in advance of the 2022 midterms. The public deserves better.
The news media has been lax in denoting the derogatory acronym RINO, typically stating that it means “Republican in Name Only.” Although the term and its variations have been used for decades — most notably by the late veteran reporter John DiStaso in 1992 — former President Donald Trump and his followers have usurped it.
One of the most egregious uses appeared in a recent political ad by former Missouri Governor and Senate candidate Eric Greitens. Playing off his military credentials, Greitens leads an armed tactical team that breaks down a door and hurls flash grenades, as if to kill any RINOs in an empty home.
Here’s the transcript:
I’m Eric Greitens, Navy Seal. And today we’re going RINO hunting. The RINO feeds on corruption. He is marked by the stripes of cowardice. Join the MAGA crew, get a RINO hunting permit. There’s no bagging limit, no tagging limit, and it doesn’t expire … until we save our country.
A searing condemnation of the advertisement came from Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson, former speechwriter for George W. Bush and, presumably, a RINO. Disputing Greitens’ claim that the ad is metaphoric, Gerson writes:
Calling upon a MAGA mob soaked in furious resentment and bristling with heavy weaponry to kill insufficiently radical Republicans is not the equivalent of ‘all the world’s a stage.’ It is the incitement to violence of a rather literal-minded group. The movement that has no moral bottom is finally within sight of one. What is the next step beyond urging your followers to murder your political opponents? It is murdering your political opponents.
In Gerson’s plea for voters to defeat Greitens, he uses the term “RINO” six times (including in the headline). But even Gerson does not further clarify the term, allowing it to stand as a MAGA-vexed vilification.
It is time to add a descriptor whenever writers use the slur.
Lack of childcare is only one issue plaguing Iowans and other Americans coping with work-related stress.
According to one study, 59% of us are so busy that we only can manage 26 minutes of free time per week. We put off tasks like cleaning, paying bills and making doctor appointments, household repairs and healthy meals.
Americans and Canadians are among the most stressed in the world. A 2021 Gallup study found that “57% of U.S. and Canadian workers reported feeling stress on a daily basis, up by eight percentage points from the year prior and compared with 43% of people who feel that way globally.”
Americans are not cutting corners at work. Their companies and institutions — including Iowa universities — are cutting budgets in a post-pandemic economy. That adds to workload.
Americans multitask more than people in any other country, often depriving us of inspiration and creativity. There is no study that documents how we multitask while worrying about issues beyond our control.
Many of us spend hours rehashing meaningless interactions, foiled bids for love or attention, real or imagined slights, and other pointless triggers, from road rage to internet outages.
Let’s start with the news. It’s bad. We hear about war, hate crimes, shootings, poisonous politics and, lest we forget, mutating omicron variants. It’s good to be informed, but not at the expense of sanity.
Take a break. You’ll hear the same reports in a week, a month, a year. One less thing.
Limit social media. Who cares if someone blocked or unfriended you or snubbed you because of a post? You don’t need to know the reason and then obsess about it in your 26 minutes of free time per week. One less thing.
Same holds true when someone stops talking to you at work for no good reason. Or gossips about you.
“Telling office bullies that they hurt your feelings may feel liberating. But it’s a bad idea,” writes Washington Post columnist Karla L. Miller. “Sharing your hurt only helps with people who care about your feelings. Otherwise, it’s giving them ammunition.”
Ignore them back and interact only when proper for work-related reasons. One less thing.
The philosophy of one less thing is liberating. Say “no” when asked to do extra tasks or service at home, school or work. Saying “yes” is one of the reasons our lives are so chaotic.
The philosophy of one less thing is based on stoicism, which the ancients viewed as a way of life. As the Stanford Encyclopedia explains it, “Once we come to know what we and the world around us are really like, and especially the nature of value, we will be utterly transformed.”
Apart from politics or career, what do you most value? Your church or community? Your spouse, friend, family, partner, pet? A hobby? Travel? Hunting, fishing, hiking, gardening? Make a list.
Now make another. What petty issues occupy your thoughts in the course of a week? Which ones can you dismiss, block or ignore for the sake of wellbeing?
The Greek stoic Epictetus has recommendations that resonate to this day. He reminds us that troubles abound. It’s how we react to them that matters. He also advises us to cease worrying about things beyond our power or control. Epictetus reminds us that people are not worried about real problems “so much as by imagined anxieties about real problems.”
The philosophy of one less thing may not set you free; but it will free up time for the pursuits and people you most value.
Michael Bugeja is a distinguished professor of liberal arts and sciences at Iowa State University. These views are his own.
Thousands of President Donald Trump’s supporters storm the U.S. Capitol building following a “Stop the Steal” rally on Jan. 6, 2021 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
We all know that domestic violence is a common occurrence in Iowa and elsewhere, but statistics are sobering, with one every four women having experienced it in their lifetimes. Some 1.3 million women are victims of such violence each year. Women aged 20-24 are at greatest risk.
Tactics of abusers involve manipulation and gaslighting.
According to WebMD, manipulation “is the exercise of harmful influence over others,” with perpetrators attacking another’s mental and emotional states to get what they want. Gaslighting is defined as “an insidious and sometimes covert type of emotional abuse where the bully or abuser makes the target question their judgments and reality.”
We often explore these concepts from an individual and psychological perspective rather than from a political and ethical one. The former remains of great concern, and victims of domestic violence need our support and resources.
But an ethical perspective is key in understanding what is at stake personally and collectively.
To fathom the impact on our psyches, we need to acknowledge the human condition whose dual aspects are consciousness and conscience. Consciousness is awareness of our physical environs, actions and words. Conscience is awareness of right and wrong.
Manipulators seek to obliterate the conscience of another person so that he or she cannot tell what is right from wrong. When that happens, the manipulator gains power over the victim.
To do so, manipulators study their intended target, taking inventory of their deepest desires, values and beliefs. They then use these against them. If a person desires something, the manipulator will hold that over their heads. If a person believes fervently in something, a manipulator will pretend to as well, only to deceive their victims later.
In essence, manipulators know how their victims will respond in a given situation and so devise a strategy to set a plan in motion. Typical tactics to control a person include deception, lying, exaggeration, silent treatment, anger and, above all, fear.
Whereas manipulation targets the conscience, gaslighting targets consciousness. The term comes from the Alfred Hitchcock movie “Gaslight” (1944) about a husband with a secret who slowly drives his wife insane.
Gaslighters claim to know a person better than they know themselves. They assert the abnormal is “normal,” so the person questions their sanity. Gaslighters overlook their own misdeeds but expound on transgressions of their victims, triggering depression. They force them to lie repeatedly so that they no longer know truth from falsehood.
Malignant narcissists are both manipulators and gaslighters.
Author Lisa A. Romano has a useful video on how to disarm a malignant narcissist. She asks us to accept the fact that we cannot control someone else’s reality. So when confronted by a narcissist, she deploys these phrases:
“I’m sorry you feel that way.”
“I can accept your faulty perception of me.”
“I have no right to control how you see me.”
“I guess I have to accept how you feel.”
“Your anger is not my responsibility.”
“I’m not going to argue about this anymore.”
“Your perceptions are your perceptions.”
Given the state of partisan opinions in our country, with one party diametrically opposed to whatever the other party promotes, voters are being manipulated and gaslighted to such extent that many no longer can trust their judgment or discern fact from fiction.
The Jan. 6 insurrection is a flashpoint.
We all saw what happened at the nation’s capital that day. The House Select Committee has been investigating and elaborating on that tragic occurrence. The first of at least eight public hearings are scheduled beginning in June.
Social media played a role in triggering the insurrection. Tweets assembled, incited and directed the mob. This is not an isolated occurrence as the use of technology in this manner dates back to the 1999 protest of the World Trade Organization in Seattle.
Protesters used cell phones to organize and vocalize their agenda, which included workers’ rights, sustainable economies, and environmental and social issues. Tactically, they used technology to circumvent police trying to control the mob.
The Jan. 6 insurrection is complicated, involving conspiracies and false claims. Voters not only were manipulated and gaslighted by politicians; they were prompted and triggered by technology.
Nevertheless, we will argue and debate the 2020 presidential election for years to come, with slim prospect of changing minds at home, school and work.
But we have a personal obligation not to allow politics to undermine our conscience and skew our consciousness.
Take another look at those phrases that Romano recommends and apply them to politics.
“I’m sorry you feel that way about [my/your politician].”
“I can accept your faulty perception of [my/your candidate].”
“I have no right to control how you see [my/your party].”
“I guess I have to accept how you feel about politics.”
“Your anger about [my candidate/party] is not my responsibility.”
“I’m not going to argue about this anymore.”
“Your perceptions about [my candidate/party] are your perceptions.”
The content of calls is disturbing, but the timing can be even more so.
You’re preparing a meal, watching Netflix or enjoying another’s company when the cell phone vibrates — someone wants to indict you for tax fraud, extend your car warranty or report an unauthorized Amazon charge.
The word “annoy” comes to us from the French, “enoiier,” which means to weary or vex. Webster’s defines it as “to disturb or irritate especially by repeated acts.”
Depending on party affiliation, you’ll get political texts and calls — a communique from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi or an urgent message from Sen. Charles Grassley.
Americans received an estimated 18.5 billion political text messages in 2020, and there’s little you can do to stop them. Unfortunately, the National Do Not Call Registry does not apply to politics. Neither can you bar charities and debt collectors from contacting you as they are exempt from the Federal Trade Commission’s blocking list.
And then there is the mobile phone itself. Among the top annoyances are battery life, software updates and passwords. Once again, time, place and occasion dictate the level of exasperation. Your phone dies during an important call or updates and wipes out your passwords so you have to remember them again.
The password guessing game is infuriating. You get three chances to recall a password before you’re blocked and now must call the facility or organization to be reinstated digitally.
Then there is two-factor identification, increasingly used by schools and businesses. You can’t simply sit at the computer anymore and get to work; you have to find your phone and affirm, “Yes, it’s me.”
We also are annoyed face-to-face.
According to one study, top irritants include bosses requesting urgent work, no toilet paper left, empty milk cartons in fridge, friends canceling plans at last minute, and encountering someone you dislike at the supermarket.
Familiar with the situation. “I’m always glad that the reporter didn’t rely on an unnamed source who was unfamiliar with the situation.”
War chest. “If political writers want to get cute, I vote that they replace it with the term ‘piggy bank.’”
Amid. “Amid these turbulent times, a little less ‘amid’ would make me happy. And we can ditch of ‘turbulent times’ while we’re at it.”
(For the record, my most annoying news phrase is “take a listen.”)
A Marist poll reported in December 2021 that “Trump” and “coronavirus” were among the most maddening terms, replacing “whatever” for the first time in more than a decade. Other annoying words included “Critical Race Theory,” “woke,” “cancel culture” and “It is what it is.”
Americans have a hard time trusting the news. The least trustworthy anchors in descending order are Sean Hannity (Fox News), Rachel Maddow (MSNBC), Don Lemon (CNN), Mika Brzezinski (MSNBC), Chris Matthews (MSNBC), Joe Scarborough (MSNBC), Tucker Carlson (Fox News), Chris Cuomo (CNN), Laura Ingraham (Fox News) and Anderson Cooper (CNN).
Cooper also was listed as among “the most trusted” after NBC’s Lester Holt, indicating how divided viewers are in ranking the news.
Considering worldwide disease and war, we might wonder why these trivial annoyances hijack our emotions, sometimes leading to outbursts that jeopardize character and reputation.
According to Psychology Today, “A minor irritation, a ‘petty annoyance,’ can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back under chronic stress.” We are asked to put things into perspective, think positively, be patient, avoid antagonistic people and understand moods, including our own.
People have been trying to tame emotions for millennia.
Stoicism, an ancient branch of philosophy, encourages us to face our feelings in a mindful way. One Stoic meditation that can help with annoyance is called the “premeditatio malorum.” Stoicism accepts that bad things can happen in life and urges one to imagine worst-case scenarios in logical, unemotional detail. If those bad things do indeed come to pass, then we can act quickly with purpose rather than be surprised and react with anger.
Marcus Aurelius, Roman emperor and philosopher, believed we have power over our mind, not external events. In his book, Meditations, he writes: “Begin in the morning by saying to thyself, I shall meet with the busy-body, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial.” Accept that as fact, he states, because being vexed at everything goes against human nature.
Do not take petty annoyances to heart. Rather, he opines, overlook the failings of others and “remember that all is opinion.”
These students have agreed to allow us to share their URLs of their media ethics codes. In Michael Bugeja’s classes, each student is tasked with creating a website that contains all of their work thus far with a designed resume, code of conduct and work samples.
Dr. Bugeja’s students enjoy near 100% placement in journalism advertising and public relations within six months of graduation (including military and graduate school).
For students using Dr. Bugeja’s text, Living Media Ethics, or who follow this site, feel free to link to our assignment page that explains how to create such a portfolio.
Here are URLs that students agreed to share on internet.