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
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.

ROSEMARIE AQUILINA: Judge, Journalist, Attorney, Professor, Soldier, Survivor Advocate, Author and Friend

Judge Aquilina was our guest at Iowa State University’s media ethics class, speaking about justice, social justice, #MeToo Movement, and evil vs. good in society. View her eloquent presentation and read about her life, heritage and contributions to social justice.


  • Earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in English and Journalism at Michigan State University.
  •  Earned Juris Doctorate degree from Thomas M. Cooley Law School (now called Western Michigan University Cooley Law School) in Lansing, Michigan.
  • Worked for 10 years as administrative assistant and campaign manager for state senator John F. Kelly, and then as a partner in his lobbying firm, Strategic Governmental Consultants, PLLC.
  • Formed Aquilina Law Firm, PLC, practicing for several years.
  • Became host of Ask the Family Lawyer, a syndicated radio talk show.
  • Joined the Michigan Army National Guard, where she became the state’s first female member of the Judge Advocate General’s Corps.
  • Served in the Michigan Army National Guard for twenty years before retiring.
  • Is an adjunct professor at Western Michigan University Cooley Law School.
  • Accomplished chef with YouTube videos featuring Rosemarie’s Kitchen.
  • Author of several award-winning fiction books.

Presiding Judge in Larry Nassar Case

In 2018, Judge Aquilina presided over the USA Gymnastics sex abuse scandal case. She allowed 156 women and girls involved with the US Olympics gymnastics team doctor, Larry Nassar, to present personal testimony on their sexual abuse. She sentenced Nassar to up to 175 years in prison for sexual abuse of juveniles and young women over the past two decades.

NBC News Interview with Judge Aquilina

Book Author: International Guest of Malta Book Council

Rosemarie was chosen as the 2019 keynote speaker of the Malta Book Festival.  Listen to the podcast about her work Triple Cross Killer to understand why she writes fiction.

Video and story at SEEN:

Our Malta Connection

Rosemarie Aquilina and I are friends. We both share the same heritage as dual citizens of Malta and the United States.

Her family hails from Qrendi …

My family from Ghajnsielem


We also share a surname. Here’s my nanna, Antonia Aquilina

Surname is derived from the word aquila, which means eagle. The surname was given to those whose eyesight and talons are sharp as a raptor. That describes Judge Rosemarie Aquilina.

The ethics of presidential slogans: They may be catchy, but can we believe them?

By Michael Bugeja September 28, 2020 IOWA CAPITAL DISPATCH

A screen displays the campaign banner for U.S. President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence on the South Lawn of the White House Aug. 27, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

“In God We Trust” is the official motto of the United States, but the first to appear on a circulating coin was “Mind Your Business,” conceived by Benjamin Franklin.

The motto appears on the 1787 “Fugio” cent — the Latin for “I fly” is a reference to “time flies.” The coin also is printed with a depiction of a sundial, symbolizing the popular saying “Time is Money.” Franklin penned that, too, in his 1748 essay “Advice to a Young Tradesman.”

“Mind Your Business” encourages entrepreneurialism and privacy, two very American beliefs.

Family mottoes also express beliefs, some dating back centuries and appearing in coats of arms. For instance, the Bugeja family crest depicts a cow or bull with the bovine motto, “To the Willing, Nothing is Impossible.”

Well, yes and no. Determination helps achieve goals, but lots of things are impossible, no matter how willing we are to realize them.

What if you lack a family crest or dislike what yours stands for?

I pose that to my media ethics students who create their own personal heraldry, choosing colors that represent heritage or culture and designing symbols associated with ethics or lifestyle. They add icons to the left and right of a chevron illustrating career path or aspiration. Their motto, or “moral brand,” goes under the chevron.

You can see examples in this article or learn how to create heraldry in this video.

Family mottoes are powerful. We hear them as children and heed them as adults. Here are a few from my class:

  • Treat others the way you want to be treated.
  • Respect your elders.
  • Never apologize.
  • Cheating is okay as long as you don’t get caught.

As you can see, some mottoes are true (Golden Rule), some mostly true (depends on the elder), mostly false (apologies also free us), and false (cheating is never okay).

Assess your own mottoes and put your beliefs to the test.

Presidential slogans are as memorable as mottoes. Campaign officials conceive, test and promote them. Sometimes a candidate says a catchy phrase in a speech, and supporters adopt it.

When candidates put slogans on buttons and banners, they function like political coats of arms.

Slogans fall into broad categories. Some play off candidate names or share platforms, promises and values. Memorable ones inspire unforgettable images or catchy rhymes.

In 1964, Barry Goldwater adopted this slogan: “In Your Heart, You Know He’s Right.” Lyndon B. Johnson countered: “In Your Guts, You Know He’s Nuts.”

Candidate Names

In 1852, Franklin Pierce alluded to prior fellow Democrat James K. Polk: “We Polked you in ‘44, We shall Pierce you in ’52.” In 1856, James Buchanan resurrected that, adding, “We Po’ked ’em in ’44, we Pierced ’em in ’52, and we’ll Buck ’em in ’56.’”

In 1872, Ulysses S. Grant espoused, “Grant Us Another Term.” In 1912, Woodrow Wilson campaigned on “Win with Wilson.” In 1924, Calvin Coolidge asked voters to “Keep Cool and Keep Coolidge.”

“I Like Ike” propelled Dwight D. Eisenhower to office.

Party Platforms

In 1840, Martin Van Buren envisioned an “Independent Treasury and Liberty.” In 1888, losing candidate Grover Cleveland observed, “Unnecessary taxation oppresses industry.” Four years later, Cleveland won on “Tariff Reform.” Theodore Roosevelt was victorious in 1904 promising “National Unity. Prosperity. Advancement.”

Ethical Standards

Abraham Lincoln’s character was immortalized in 1860 as “Honest Old Abe.” Jimmy Carter asked voters in 1980 to support “A Tested and Trustworthy Team.” In 1988, George H.W Bush envisioned a “Kinder, Gentler Nation.” In 2000, George W. Bush advocated “Compassionate Conservatism.”

Borrowed slogans

Sometimes candidates pilfer successful slogans from past campaigns. In 1908, William Howard Taft promised, “A Square Deal for All.” Four years later, Theodore Roosevelt echoed: “A Square Deal All Around.”

One of the most memorable slogans was Lincoln’s 1864 phrase, “Don’t change horses in midstream.” Franklin Roosevelt, seeking a fourth term in 1944, stole it.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan ran on “Let’s Make America Great Again.” Donald J. Trump deleted “Let’s.”

Best slogans

Here’s my top 10:

10. “A Chicken in Every Pot and a Car in Every Garage,” – Herbert Hoover, 1928

9. “Vote as You Shot” – Ulysses S. Grant, 1868

8. “All the Way with LBJ,” Lyndon B. Johnson, 1964

7. “I like Ike” – Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1952, and “I Still Like Ike,” 1956

6. “It’s the Economy, Stupid” – Bill Clinton, 1992

5. “Don’t Change Horses Midstream” – Abraham Lincoln, 1864

4. “Happy Days Are Here Again” – Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1932

3. “Are You Better Off Than You Were Four Years Ago?” – Ronald Reagan, 1980

2. “Yes, We Can” – Barack Obama, 2008

1. “The Union Must and Shall Be Preserved” – Abraham Lincoln, 1864

In 2020, incumbent Donald Trump is running on “Promises Made, Promises Kept” and “Keep America Great” and Joe Biden on “Restore the Soul of America” and “Anything is Possible, No Malarkey!”

Voters might judge those slogans by the ethical standard of true, mostly true, mostly false, and false. Did Trump keep promises and make America great again? Did America lose its soul and, if so, can Biden restore it? Is anything really possible, or is that malarkey?

We’ll know the answers in November.

Broadcast techniques enhance remote learning

Instead of a tech model, consider a broadcast one with teacher as producer

By Copyright 2020 Poynter

During the spring 2020 semester, when thousands of face-to-face classes went virtual on short notice, some professors dumped lecture notes on educational software and called it a day. Others recorded lectures asynchronously, uploaded them on YouTube, and left it at that.

Many instructors already had websites with posted lectures that students could visit 24/7. Initially, department chairs and deans encouraged students to access these sites as some students lacked home computers with broadband internet and requisite software. It was enough at the time.

Because of the abrupt transition in March, traditional rules for students and faculty also were relaxed, including attendance, proctored exams and even grades, with pass-fail options available.

It was supposed to be temporary.

Then the pandemic in the United States worsened.

By mid-August, universities planning to hold face-to-face classes reversed that decision. Some, including Iowa State University, where I teach media ethics, relegated large classes to the Internet and smaller ones to classrooms with meticulous social distancing regulations.

Students were asked to practice safety precautions after hours and off-campus. It was the new honor code.

Many students violated it, especially on 801 Day (Aug. 1) in Ames, an annual citywide party on the Saturday before school starts.

This video went viral. Then COVID-19 did here.

Ames became the top national hotspot in early September. Iowa State reversed course again. In an Aug. 31 memo, faculty were informed that no one would be forced to teach in-person. Professors had the option to “modify a course’s delivery mode (in-person, hybrid, online or arranged).”

Such reversals safeguard employees and students. But they also often create havoc as professors trade face masks and sanitizers for help webinars and IT support.

Vaccines most likely will not be widely available until late spring or summer next year, according to top infectious disease specialists. That means the spring 2021 semester will look a lot like 2020.

Your online classes do not have to, however, if you prepare for the inevitable.

For the rest of the article, including step-by-step instructions, click here. (Or visit: )

Updated Trigger Word Game

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. 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.

Triggers 1995-2021

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.

Culture Vulture Hoaxes Exploit POC

Whenever individuals perpetuate hoaxes in mainstream and social media, others are injured by the lies along with the causes they feigned to advance. This month two academics acknowledged and then apologized for fictive characters they invented–a Black activist and a American Indian #MeTooSTEM anthropologist. This post reminds journalists and practitioners of their social responsibility to identify and expose hoaxes.

In an essay on Medium, titled “The Truth, and the Anti-Black Violence of my Lies,” Jessica Krug, associate professor of history at George Washington University, admitted that she “eschewed my lived experience as a white Jewish child in suburban Kansas City under various assumed identities within a Blackness that I had no right to claim: first North African Blackness, then U.S. rooted Blackness, then Caribbean rooted Bronx Blackness.”

Inside Higher Ed reported neuroscientist BethAnn McLaughlin, a founder of the MeTooSTEM organization, “admitted Tuesday to creating a fake friend on Twitter, running the anonymous account for years and then killing off the persona with a case of teaching-related COVID-19.”

Journalists and practitioners must guard against hoaxes, which play on common fears, desires, convictions, values and cultures of a target audience or clientele. Hoaxers create opportunities to manipulate mainstream and social media by perpetuating:

  • Fear of a certain race, ethnicity, sex, disability, protected or social-class group.
  • Desire to be recognized or compensated for activism, victimization, innovation and contribution on trending topics.
  • Belief that certain people of a particular race, ethnicity, sex, disability or social class are inherently immoral/moral, unintelligent /intelligent, privileged/disadvantaged, etc.
  • Belief in or skepticism about the paranormal.
  • Conviction about political party, candidate, celebrity, religious deity, government policy, entitlement, legal case, etc.

It is important for journalists and practitioners to know the various ethics terms used to define these concepts.

Invention happens from within the organization–a reporter fabricates quotations or sources, for instance–and so does not qualify as a hoax. A hoax relies entirely upon manipulation of media by an outside source whose sole goal is to program agendas according to their motives. A culture vulture is an inauthentic person who practices cultural appropriation in an attempt to identify with aspects of another culture and claim it as their own.

Hoaxes harm newsrooms, agencies and organizations because they:

  • Jeopardize personal credibility.
  • Harm corporate brand or non-profit reputation.
  • Expose personal beliefs of journalists and practitioners.
  • Demean, trivialize or exploit cultural beliefs.
  • Cause innocent others irreparable harm.

Harm happens to innocent parties that mistakenly embraced the fictive personae of hoaxes. In the case of a white person claiming to be Black or American Indian, the hoaxer exploits people of color.

Inside Higher Ed called attention to Krug’s author bio in the online magazine RaceBaitr as an “unrepentant and unreformed child of the hood.” The publication retracted Krug’s article and ran this notice on Twitter:

McLaughlin’s fabricated anonymous anthropologist, aka @Sciencing_Bi, not only exploited the Hopi Tribe but fears of teachers returning to the classroom and being exposed to COVID-19. That made her hoax especially harmful.

Racists, sexists, xenophobes, homophobes and supremacists often use baseless claims in hoaxes as fodder for conspiracy theories that may lead to physical and verbal violence, undermining legitimate cases for equity, equality and inclusion.

Living Media Ethics dedicates a chapter to hoaxes and how journalists and practitioners can identify and expose them.

  • Always question the motive of the source. Nothing frightens a manipulator more than questions about “motive.” In fact, use that word in your questions.
  • Always question your own needs. Determine whether the source knows how your media outlet operates. In fact, ask a question using a jargon word related to your outlet or newsroom. Assess your own eagerness to pursue the story
  • Always question the impact on audience. Determine how the source’s story, problem, discovery or product will affect your readers, viewers or customers. Assess how much the audience desires or fears what the source is peddling.
  • Always assess your own fears, desires, convictions or values. Ultimately hoaxers rely on you, not your outlet, as the medium for manipulation. The more your beliefs go unacknowledged, the easier it will be for the hoaxer to prey on them to achieve his or her goal.

Finally, it behooves us to remember the causes that Krug and McLaughlin harmed: equity, equality and inclusion for people of color. Journalists and practitioners are socially responsible for affirming those tenets in their reports and campaigns.

Identity: Who are we behind the masks, shields and social distance?

(Creative Commons photo via

By Michael Bugeja

We think about this incessantly but seldom, if ever, mention it, except perhaps to a confidant in existential moments. We have had many of those in the age of coronavirus whose masks, shields and social distance provide the perfect camouflage for contemplation.

Who are we and why? When, where and what shaped our experiences and perception? How do we come to terms with personal identity?

These are difficult philosophical questions. But everyone asks them.

John Locke (1632-1704), the philosopher who shaped America’s character via natural law — the inalienable rights of equality, life, liberty and happiness—links identity with consciousness. If we think and are rational and can assess our actions in the past and foresee them in the future, we possess identity.

This was a radical idea. (Previously, people believed religion defined identity to one degree or another.)

In “John Locke on Personal Identity,” a case is made that we begin life with an “empty” mind shaped by our experiences, the emotions they elicit, and the reflections that they create over time. In sum, life is a story.

To understand personal identity, we must distinguish it from other variants of the concept.

The general term, “identity,” means the physical attributes of people or things that differentiate one from another, as in “the identity of flood survivors.”

We also may ascribe to “cultural identity” or the specific group, generation, religion, ethnicity or nationality to which we belong. For instance, I am a first-generation American of Maltese heritage.

Then there are “identity politics,” which the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines as groups of people with “a particular racial, religious, ethnic, social, or cultural identity (who) tend to promote their own specific interests or concerns without regard to the interests or concerns of any larger political group.”

These variants sometimes confuse us. Fact is, some aspects of identity are visible, such as skin color. Others are not easily discernable, such as native tongue or ethnicity. Some may be invisible, such as religion or sexual orientation.

We often err or lapse into racism, sexism or homophobia when we make assumptions about another person’s identity.

Society also divides us according to cultural and political identities. The Pew Research Center reports that Black adults “are about five times as likely as whites to say they’ve been unfairly stopped by police because of their race or ethnicity.” About 88% of white Democrats believe that Black people are treated less fairly by police whereas only 43% of Republicans feel similarly.

As mentioned earlier, I am of dual heritage. I was brought up with Mediterranean culture in every aspect but one: language. My parents refused to teach me Maltese in the belief I could integrate more easily into U.S. society and not be viewed as an immigrant.

My parents knew by experience that immigrants face discrimination. That bias exists today.

My white privilege allowed me to succeed. Others cannot change their skin color or sexual orientation and so face challenges that I have never experienced.

Make no mistake: I am profoundly proud of Maltese history, art and cuisine; but I cannot fully identify with hundreds of Maltese relatives, friends and colleagues because I do not know their language. I feel inauthentic even though my bloodline traces back to the 16th century in church records.

Cultural identity typically asks us to conform in one way or another to be a fully credentialed member of a specific group. Identity politics sometimes does the same.

Personal identity is about character.

Elisabeth Camp, associate professor of philosophy at Rutgers University, narrates a short but insightful video, titled “Personal Identity: The Narrative Self.”

In it, she makes these points about “what makes me, me?” She asks, if someone made an exact replica of you, would it be you? In some sense, this is what identical twins confront — a genetic exact copy of themselves. But each, of course, is an individual with unique personal identity.

Is identity really a story with a beginning, middle and end? If so, how do we respond if a person passes early in life — their future, cut short — or if an elder needs continuous care and outlives their life purpose?

Cultural stories have narratives, too, as in the “self-made” man or woman. What if we fail to live up to that model? What if injustice prevents us from participating in or achieving that outcome?

Identity politics asks us to vote for a platform whose several components we may or may not fully support.

Professor Camp makes a valid case that personal identity is about character — literally and figuratively. We may be a character in life’s narrative, but the goal is to develop character via ethics.

To be sure, we can embrace our physical, cultural, religious, ethnic and political identities. They play important roles in relationships, activities and society and influence our self-perception.

But when we define ourselves by the content of our character, we question our biases, attitudes, choices and actions and strive to be more truthful, responsible, prudent, generous, fair, open-minded and empathetic.

Imagine how society would change if we and our elected representatives embraced that identity.

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.”