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 Univ.

Note: Ohio University years are in green and Iowa State in cardinal.

Here are trigger words from Ethics Class, January 2020 and Fall 2020

Within eight months, what terms came into the public conscience? Who placed them there?

Equally as interesting is what has more impact on our long-term collective psyches–culture or media?

One might think media, but a snapshot of responses from 8 years at Ohio University and 7 years at Iowa State suggests Culture (56 citations) as the dominant factor, followed by Media (41), Government (16), Social Debate (13) and Pop Culture (7).

FIGURE 1: Impact of “media” rises dramatically and levels off while “culture” maintains high numbers in every year but two (1999 and 2000), tying with “media.”

FIGURE 2: Impact of “media” rises, peaking in 2016, and drops off to low levels in 2018-19. Culture remains relatively high but not dominant. Social debate shows high levels in 2012 and 2019. Pop culture and other designations remain relatively except in 2018.

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, and to be more skeptical about media’s long-term impact on perception.

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 Pxhere.com)

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.”

Free press v. free will: Do we have either?

What influences our free will and our free press? (Photo by Carol Yepes/Getty Images)

The 19th century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) maintained that we all have free will. At issue, he says, is who or what shaped that will.

In his book “Essays and Aphorisms,” he writes, “Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world.” In other words, perception becomes our reality.

What factors influence our perception of free will or media coverage in free press?

The online Cambridge Dictionary defines “free will” as “the ability to act and make choices independent of any outside influence.”

It defines “free press” as reporters being able “to express any opinions they want, even if these criticize the government and other organizations.”

Origins of free press begin with Thomas Jefferson’s belief that citizens “are the only censors of their governors.” He embraced this idea so fervently that he proclaimed, “were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

He qualified that, stating, “But I should mean that every man should receive those papers & be capable of reading them.”

Those qualifications helped insure a free press. Delivery progressed from horseback and pony express to telegraph, train, ship, plane, truck and, finally, worldwide digital access.

Reading required education. John Jay, first chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, believed “nothing should be left undone to afford all ranks of people the means of obtaining (education) at a cheap and easy rate.”

(Jay likely would disapprove of rising college tuition rates.)

Speaking of money, one of the biggest influences on mostmedia is profit. Editors and publishers at publicly traded media companiestypically consider views of shareholders as well as corporate branding, audience attitudes and advertising.

According to the American Press Institute, media bias also happens when reporters act as crusaders or seek to please editors and sources. Sometimes they simply follow the pack (what other outlets are covering) without regard to newsworthiness.

Journalism educators train aspiring reporters to question their own perceptions and to assemble as many facts as possible to balance stories.

Of course, reporters are people whose perception is subject to the same biases as members of the audience.

Case in point: You’re probably reading this through personal filters, which include your generation, religion, culture, politics, ethnicity, experiences, mood and expectations. The latter is especially powerful. Many of us expect reality to align with our perceptions.

Ironically, a key factor shaping perception is the media we support or dislike. We may patronize or loathe Fox News or MSNBC because their reports affirm or undermine our political biases. But we’re not passive consumers. We link, copy and paste our views on social media and fault others who criticize our posts and opinions.

That affects our mood.

Nevertheless, Americans consume news and social media at record rates. We use or view online content as if our lives depended on it, spending about 11 hours per day, or two-thirds of waking hours.

We are so hooked on media that people typically experience withdrawal symptoms as severe as addictive substances.

According to Psychology Today, “In the same way that ‘a fish only notices the water when it is gone,’ if media communications were suddenly eliminated from our lives, we would experience a major social and emotional sense of loss.”

As a consequence, media gives us a false sense of reality. Coupled with our own innate biases, our view of the world is skewed.

Psychologist Jim Taylor affirms that in his article, “Perception is Not Reality”:

“Perception acts as a lens through which we view reality. Our perceptions influence how we focus on, process, remember, interpret, understand, synthesize, decide about, and act on reality. In doing so, our tendency is to assume that how we perceive reality is an accurate representation of what reality truly is. But it’s not.”

In the end, we may not have a free press or free will devoid of bias. But there are things we can do to see the world more impartially.

Taylor recommends the following:

  • Don’t assume that your perceptions are reality (it’s just your reality).
  • Be respectful of others’ perceptions (they may be right).
  • Your perceptions may be wrong (admitting it takes courage).
  • Challenge your perceptions (do they hold up under scrutiny)?
  • Seek out validation from experts and credible others (don’t just ask your friends).
  • Be open to modifying your perceptions if evidence demands it (rigidity of mind is far worse than being wrong).

Journalists also would do well to follow those guidelines to fulfill their primary mission of informing the public so that citizens make intelligent decisions in the voting booth.

If we all challenged perceptions, we might realize what Jefferson and Jay envisioned to safeguard rights and liberties, and both our will and press would be freer than they are in these divisive times.

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.”

What an Apology Should and Should Not Do

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defines the essence of a conscientious apology. Rep. Ted Yoho’s attempt at one denies, obfuscates, justifies and spins. See the textual analysis below.

Earlier this month Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.) engaged in what a reporter called a “heated exchange” with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the steps of the Capitol, telling her she was “disgusting” for linking poverty and unemployment with increased crime.

She told him he was being rude and walked away. A reporter then overhead Yoho say, “f–king b—h.”

Here is the initial report by The Hill.

Upon learning the exchange would be reported, Yoho delivered the above attempt at an apology. Technically, it failed because (a) he never mentioned AOC’s name, (b) tried to justify his behavior, and (c) spun the truth rather than admit it.

Here’s a textual analysis:

Ethically, an apology should:

  1. Identify the error or wrongdoing (what it was, when and where it occurred, and whom it harmed).
  2. Correct the record.
  3. Do so as soon as possible.
  4. Do so prominently.
  5. Provide an explanation about the error or wrongdoing.
  6. Disclose how the error or wrongdoing could have been avoided and/or how it will be prevented in the future.
  7.  Issue a sincere apology to those damaged by the false disclosure or wrongdoing.

At best, Yoho made a quick, prominent attempt to admit wrongdoing but failed to do so sincerely in his “non-apology apology.”

Living Media Ethics has researched apologies, categorizing them into five categories:

I. Non-Apology Apology

The accused did nothing wrong and those offended may be too sensitive or misguided. Typically, it includes the words–“I apologize if you felt offended” or “I apologize if you misinterpreted my actions.”

II. Excuse Apology 

The accused did something wrong but wouldn’t normally have done this except for the fact that [add excuse].

III. Justified Apology

The accused may have crossed the line but probably was justified in doing so.

IV. Personal-interest Apology

The accused expresses regret because of possible consequences to career, family, ambition or other individual objective or concern.

V. Conscientious Apology

The accused expresses true sorrow for causing pain, conflict or disparagement on another person, organization or group.

Rep. Ocasio-Cortez delivered what some say was the speech of a lifetime refuting Yoho’s apology. You can listen to it below.

Among the many highlights is this statement, accurately conveying the essence of a conscientious apology:

“Having daughters is not what makes someone a decent man. Treating people with dignity and respect is what makes a decent man. And when a decent man messes up, as we all are bound to do, he does apologize. Not to save face. Not to win a vote. He apologizes, genuinely, to repair and acknowledge the harm done, so that we can all move on.”

Hers is a textbook example of how to make an ethical apology. Rep. Yoho’s is a textbook example of how not to.

There are always consequences when one attempts an apology but does not deliver an ethical or sincere one. When that happens, as in this case, the failed apology becomes the news.


  • Bugeja, Michael. Making Whole: Ethics of Corrections in Three Case Studies across Platforms. Journal of Mass Media Ethics, Vol. 22, No. 1, 49-65.
  • Bugeja, Michael. “Correction Policies” in Encyclopedia of Journalism. Ed. by Gregory A. Borchard. Thousand Oaks, Calif: Sage, 2020.

Democracy, accountability and empowerment: The case for journalism as a gen-ed course

As the availability of journalism jobs decreases, the future of the discipline might depend more on technology and general education

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By Michael Bugeja

Recent racist incidents and police violence have been caught on video, uploaded to social media and viewed millions of times, sparking protests and outrage and accelerating diversity agendas at colleges and universities.

In most of those incidents, the photographer was not a reporter but a bystander or victim of abuse themselves.

Reporters have been arrested in record numbers covering protests associated with the May 25 killing of George Floyd. Some 10,000 mostly peaceful protesters have been arrested and assaulted, too, with many such incidents caught on tape. In an op-ed in the Iowa Capital Dispatch, I ask, “What makes a journalist, the person or the device?”

Increasingly, I argue, it is the device.

In the hands of a journalist, however, or a civilian who knows reporting basics, you double its power.

Power is at the core of controversies about police brutality. Smartphone technology has empowered civilians whose photographs and videos undermine the authority of law enforcement, at times exposing lies, racist agendas and prosecutorial negligence.

Police departments rely on video and security cameras for traffic control, license plate recognition and crime detection. But when the lens is turned on them, they often are less enthusiastic.

Units equipped with body cameras may not release videos to the public or wait months to do so, as was the case in the killing of Elijah McClain. He had done nothing illegal but was wearing a mask while on an errand to pick up iced tea for his brother.

The issue here is accountability and transparency, key tenets of journalism. Reporters are watchdogs over government and file freedom of information requests to foster openness. They embrace the credo of afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted.

These are lessons for everyone.

Everyone is a reporter

In 2005, Wired ran an article with that maxim:

“When man bites dog, who’s the first to report it? Don’t assume it’s your local paper or CNN. These days, ‘our man on the scene’ is often a swarm of amazingly prolific nonprofessionals posting up-to-the-minute stories and pictures of breaking news from their laptops.”

When I first read this, I was skeptical, fearing so-called citizen reporters would undermine the credibility of journalism. A month after the Wired piece, I wrote “The Media World as It Is” for Inside Higher Ed:

“(T)he promise of technology — that it would build social networks, democratize news and generally enhance information in two-way flows — has always hinged on the presumption of readily available and verifiable information. What are the consequences, not only for media, but for academe, when opinion displaces fact?”

I was worried about fake news years before President Donald Trump claimed to have invented that term.

But my own opinion has changed as technology became more powerful, mobile and ubiquitous in the form of a cellphone, especially the iPhone, which first made its debut in 2007.

Apple’s inaugural device included many features we still use every day, such a web browser, email, text messaging, music and video players, and maps applications. It also came with a first-generation YouTube default app.

By 2009, YouTube was registering more than a billion views per day. Now there are more than 2 billion users.

The power of cellphones is epic. We call them smartphones for a reason. The 2020 iPhone 11 Pro Max boasts a 12-megapixel ultra-wide, wide angle, and telephoto lens. Its video is as sharp as any network television camera, with a processor and neural engine capable delivering more than 1 trillion operations per second.

It can capture just about anything within a 120-degree field of view.

The increasing power of cellphones coincided with the decreasing presence of reporters. They are not yet extinct, but on society’s endangered species list. Between 2008 and 2020, U.S. newsrooms lost half of their employees, according to Pew Research Center.

News deserts are popping up all over. As Penelope Muse Abernathy, Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics at the University of North Carolina, notes in News Deserts And Ghost Newspapers: Will Local News Survive?:

Many of the country’s 6,700 surviving papers have become “ghost newspapers” — mere shells of their former selves, with greatly diminished newsrooms and readership. The loss of both journalists and circulation speaks to the declining influence of local newspapers, and raises questions about their long-term financial viability in a digital era.

The choice is obvious: Bemoan journalism’s decline or inspire thousands of opinionated but omnipresent smartphone users. I embrace the latter. They may be the only option left to hold government and law enforcement in check.

Everyone has rights

They also have cellphones. Increasingly they document racism under the genre “while being Black” with African Americans insulted, threatened or arrested doing everyday things. Earlier this year Amy Cooper, a white woman, threw a viral tantrum and called police after a Black birdwatcher in Central Park asked her to leash her dog.

These frequent encounters are becoming more ominous. In June, Mark and Susan McCloskey brandished weapons at protesters who passed their palatial home in St. Louis. Another white couple, Jillian and Eric Wuestenberg, were charged with felonious assault in a parking lot incident during which Jillian pointed a gun at a Black mother and her 15-year-old daughter.

Because cellphones recorded each incident, consequences ensued. Cooper lost her job at an investment corporation and faces misdemeanor charges. Eric Wuestenberg was fired from his support staff position at Oakland University. The McCloskeys were each charged with one count of unlawful use of a weapon.

These videos are deeply troubling, but the one shot by 17-year-old Darnella Frazier was horrifying. Some called the documented killing of George Floyd a state-sponsored execution.

Frazier was on a grocery store run with her 9-year-old cousin when she saw Floyd being arrested. She used her cellphone to capture former police officer Derek Chauvin with his knee on Floyd’s neck, killing him.

Frazier’s lawyer, Seth Cobin, told the BBC, “She felt she had to document it. It’s like the civil rights movement was reborn in a whole new way, because of that video.”

The comment about civil rights reverberates in former reporters of that era. The primary goal in the 1960s and early 1970s was equal treatment in all aspects of society for African Americans. I covered protests by the American Indian Movement whose leaders, including Dennis Banks and Russell Means, sought economic independence, preservation of native culture, autonomy over tribal areas and restoration of stolen lands.

Civil rights and liberties are fundamental aspects of journalism education, which utilizes case law associated with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, among other statutes.

Civil liberties are associated with the Constitution.

Every journalism graduate should know freedoms of the First Amendment — press, speech, religion, assembly and petition — as well as unlawful seizures of the Fourth Amendment and due process of the Fourteenth.

Those liberties are at the heart of a federal lawsuit filed against the city of Minneapolis and its police department for actions against reporters covering George Floyd protests. The suit alleges that reporters were assaulted and arrested by police without cause, “all after these journalists identified themselves and were otherwise clearly engaged in their reporting duties.”

Protesters have the same rights as reporters, according to 42 U.S. Code § 1983, which protects citizens from being deprived of “any rights, privileges or immunities secured by the Constitution.” Any entity violating that law can be held liable in class actions.

Everyone should know that.

Everyone needs gen ed

But does everyone need journalism? I think they do.

And yet, journalism rarely is on the list of required courses in colleges and universities. That has to do in part with the history of general education. Originally, in the early 19th century, it sought to complete the liberal education of the aristocracy. In the 1960s, it attempted to make liberal education more accessible to nontraditional students. The culture wars of the 1980s heightened consciousness about feminism and canons of underrepresented groups. More recently, general education exploded with dozens of courses based on budget models rewarding departmental enrollment.

Nevertheless, gen-ed courses still fall under the usual umbrellas of humanities, social sciences, and math and physical/biological sciences.

Rarely will you find journalism in the mix. Many reporting courses are skill-based and excluded on that basis. Journalism is neither humanities nor social sciences; it is one or the other and sometimes both. Courses like media history clearly fall in the humanities camp; others like public affairs reporting in the social sciences group; and science communication in both.

General education includes survey, theory and concept classes. When viewed in that manner, several journalism courses easily adapt.

They also may be popular. Americans on average use smartphones about 5.4 hours per day. The 16-24 demographic interacts on social media about 3 hours per day. As such, general education students would benefit from courses in news/media literacy, cultivating the next generation of news consumers who possess the ability to spot fake news and dis/misinformation.

A survey course in media law and ethics also might enlighten students about rights, liberties and precedents, all of which are vital for future generations seeking change.

A theory class in world press systems might expand and diversify knowledge. Specialized courses might be popular, too, such as “History of the Black Press,” “Social Media and Change” or “Gone Viral: Videos That Made History.”

Journalism education has focused for decades on graduates securing media jobs. As those decrease, along with enrollments, the future of the discipline might depend more on general education. But the case here is about democracy, accountability, transparency and empowerment.

Without a robust news industry, monitoring government and investigating the corporate elite, our only hope may be in the hands of the people, literally and figuratively.

Michael Bugeja, distinguished professor of journalism at Iowa State University of Science and Technology, teaches media ethics and technology and social change. He can be reached at bugeja@iastate.edu.

VIDEO: Reporter Arrests (Cameras, Constitution, Consequences)

This presentation discusses the disturbing trend of reporter arrests during George Floyd-related protests, focusing on how the camera has caused a power shift in the authority of police and the practice of journalism.

Goals of the presentation:

  • To show how cameras have documented social ills in society.
  • To review reporter arrests in recent George Floyd protests.
  • To cite legal ramifications associated with constitutional rights: freedom of press and assembly, unreasonable searches and seizures, and due process.
  • To document how cameras and wireless technology have caused a power shift in society affecting authority of police and practice of journalism.
  • To make recommendations (a) for curricular changes in general education and (b) for reporters covering protests.


What makes a journalist — the person or the device?

By Michael Bugeja Iowa Capital Dispatch

Demonstrators stand in front law enforcement who are holding a perimeter during protest on June 1, 2020 in downtown Washington, DC. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Reporter arrests and assaults continue to rise during ongoing George Floyd protests with more than 300 violations of First Amendment rights, according to U.S. Press Freedom Tracker.

Incidents have been captured on video. This compilation includes the blinding in one eye of freelance photographer Linda Tirado.

Des Moines Register reporters Andrea Sahouri and Katie Akin also were assaulted and arrested, according to Editor Carol Hunter. Akin said “I’m press” or “I’m with the Des Moines Register” 17 times in about 30 seconds.

It didn’t help.

Huffington Post reporter Christopher Mathias was arrested covering the protest in New York. Here’s a partial transcript:

Mathias: “Can you look at my press pass? I’m a journalist. You’re arresting a journalist right now.”

Officer: “Then you should’ve gotten out of my way.

Mathias: “I did get out of your way, you ran past me. Can you please get my phone? It’s right there. Please get my phone.”

Officer: “Shut the f**k up. Get him out of here, let’s go.”

In video after video, police focus as much on the cellphone as on the person holding the device.

Technology changes media history. We have a new chapter.

In 2013, Detroit Free Press photographer Mandi Wright covered the arrest of a suspect on a public street. An officer tells her to stop taping on her iPhone. She identifies herself as a member of the press but the officer says, “I don’t care who you are” and confiscates the phone.

Wright and the officer tussle over the phone, and he arrests her. Upon release, she discovered the memory card of her phone was missing.

Outcry was huge.

The professional photographer’s blog, PDNPulse, wrote that the police had “a public relations mess on its hands” violating Wright’s First Amendment rights. It also noted “the Detroit police department has apologized to the paper’s editors, and promised to issue a directive reminding officers that they can’t interfere with anyone videotaping them in public.”

Wright still works for the Free Press and was among journalists in Detroit covering a protest when police opened up on them with tear gas and rubber bullets. A projectile struck a bystander.

A new normal is being established. Increasingly, reporters may be fair game for assaults and arrests even if they identify themselves documenting history as it happens.

The issue seems more about how history is being documented, on camera, than by whom, raising the question about what makes a journalist: the person or the device?

In 2013 when Wright was arrested, the iPhone 5 was a sixth generation cellphone with a 1.3Ghz processor with 1 GB of Ram. Its main feature was an 8 megapixel camera that was 40% faster than its predecessors.

Those features pale compared with the 2020 iPhone 11 Pro Max’s 12-megapixel ultra-wide angle, wide angle, and telephoto lens capability. It excels in live broadcast with a processor and neural engine delivering more than 1 trillion operations per second.

In other words, it can capture just about anything within a 120-degree field of view. And you can buy one for about $1,000.

Some 80% of Americans have cellphones, and 45% of those are iPhones, with its popular demographic being users ages 18-34.

Those users have in pockets a device whose main purpose is a telephone but that functions as telegraph (messaging), radio station (audio), television station (video), blogging (newspaper), live streaming (film crew) and multimedia (all of the above).

The cellphone, in particular, the iPhone, empowers citizens as well as journalists to document what happens in the street, classroom, boardroom — any room or physical space.

Increasingly, citizens tape police arrests that purportedly violate human rights as well as constitutional safeguards.

Citizens have First Amendment rights just as journalists do, and violations thereof can be actionable in federal court pursuant to 42 U.S. Code § 1983, which protects against “deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution.”

One class action suit already has been filed in Minnesota. Lead plaintiff Jared Goyette reportedly told police he was a member of the press covering protests but was shot in the face with a rubber bullet.

“Without journalists there, police or other people in power can feel a sense of impunity that no one will see what’s happening anyway,” Goyette says. “Everyone needs to know people are watching.”

And the camera enables that.

Reporters are trained to document rather than doctor content, especially video and photographs. They typically have a bachelor’s degree heavily weighted in the liberal arts and sciences and skills classes involving mastery of equipment. Most important, they study media law and ethics.

Reporters also are held to professional standards and face termination and litigation themselves if they intentionally mislead the public or fabricate information.

Education is key in the debate about reporter arrests, and police need some now about free press and assembly rights.

Reporters and citizens whose cellphones are confiscated should inform police that they do not consent to searches of the device on grounds of Fourth Amendment freedom from incidental seizures.

In the past, beauty was said to be in the eye of the beholder. For better or worse, media history now is in the lens of the holder.

Technology’s role in journalism protest arrests: How phones have changed things

Technology played a major role in gutting media outlets. Further, the public used to rely on reporters to cover spot news, but the cellphone enabled everyone to do the same.

Moral absolutes: Where do you draw the personal and political line?

By Michael Bugeja, June 1, 2020 

Former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt meets with contralto singer Marian Anderson in Japan. (Photo credit: Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library/NARA)

Before the coronavirus dominated the news, politics did, with Democratic presidential candidates promising (among other things) free college tuition, debt relief, comprehensive health care, gun control, climate restoration and $1,000 a month universal income.

President Trump was less specific. He promised to keep America great.

Rival Joe Biden promised to resurrect American norms. That may prove to be the biggest challenge. Like Trump, though, Biden is vague on specifics.

So what are ethical norms?

One philosophical view involves “moral absolutism.” Those who profess it claim that some actions are inherently right or wrong. Moreover, they maintain, you’d have a hard time in any country finding a theorist who disavowed these ethical tenets.

Philosopher Christina Hoff Sommers wrote about them in a 1991 article titled “Teaching the Virtues”:

It is wrong to mistreat a child.

It is wrong to humiliate a person.

It is wrong to torment an animal.

It is wrong to think only of yourself.

It is wrong to steal.

It is wrong to lie.

It is right to keep promises.

It is right to be considerate and respectful of others.

It is right to be charitable and generous.

American history is based on moral absolutism, beginning with the founders’ famous slogan: no taxation without representation. We fought a revolution over that precept.

Abraham Lincoln believed in moral absolutes, too, concerning the dissolution of the Union, something he would not abide. Although he abhorred slavery in his personal ethic, the atrocities of the Civil War eventually pinged his conscience. He wrote the executive order otherwise known as the Emancipation Proclamation and played a key role in the passage of the 13th Amendment banning slavery.

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962) condemned discrimination in U.S. society. Like Lincoln, she “led from a place of right and wrong, of moral absolutes, whether it was speaking out for the rights of women, or against racial segregation in America,” writes Sophia A. Nelson in her book, “E Pluribus One: Reclaiming Our Founders Vision for a United America.”

Nelson notes that Mrs. Roosevelt was viewed as a woman with immense moral courage. Her detractors saw her as a traitor to her privileged class. “Whatever the criticism,” Nelson states, “she never shrank back. She was determined to live her life on her own terms, and she did.”

Mrs. Roosevelt upheld moral ideals on several occasions. Perhaps her greatest accomplishment concerned her role in establishing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The preamble of that historic document states that “disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind.”

Last month the George Floyd video outraged the conscience of the world.

Murder defendant and fired officer Derek Chauvin pinned Floyd to the street with his knee as Floyd uttered these heart-wrenching last words: “I can’t breathe. Don’t kill me. Mama! They’re going to kill me.”

Chauvin kept his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, including two minutes and 53 seconds after Floyd lost consciousness.

The act was barbarous. From an ethical standpoint, the three fired officers who assisted Chauvin also were guilty. They, too, heard Floyd’s forsaken pleas but they did not intervene.

Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo said the three were complicit and should be charged. He called the killing a “violation of humanity” and referenced moral absolutes in an interview with CNN.

“The killing of Mr. Floyd was an absolute truth that it was wrong.”

Eleanor Roosevelt advocated intervention in the wake of moral wrongdoing.

Case in point: African American contralto opera singer Marian Anderson performed at the White House in 1935. Soon after, Howard University petitioned the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) to book its Washington, D.C., auditorium, Constitution Hall, for an Easter weekend concert.

But there was a problem. Donors to DAR said only whites could perform on stage, and the organization denied the request to use the Hall for an Anderson concert.

Eleanor Roosevelt interceded. You can read about the entire incident here.

She sent a telegram to Howard University: “I regret extremely that Washington is to be deprived of hearing Marion Anderson a great artist.” She also resigned from DAR, writing:

“I am in complete disagreement with the attitude taken in refusing Constitution Hall to a great artist. You have set an example which seems to me unfortunate, and I feel obliged to send in to you my resignation. You had an opportunity to lead in an enlightened way and it seems to me that your organization has failed.”

Her moral absolutism required further action. Mrs. Roosevelt promoted an outdoor concert for Anderson at the Lincoln Memorial. More than 75,000 people attended. The audience was appropriately diverse. The performance also was broadcast on the radio.

What violations of your moral code would incite you to act as Eleanor Roosevelt did in the wake of unfairness or discrimination? What are your personal moral absolutes? What would you subtract or add to the Christina Hoff Sommers’ list cited earlier?

For instance, would you tolerate racism in a partner? Infidelity? Domestic or sexual violence? No?

Let’s press the issue. Would you tolerate the same in a political candidate … if that candidate also promised you something you desperately wanted?

We might want to assess the role of moral absolutes before casting votes in the November election.