Easy ethics, hard choices

Former president John Quincy Adams. (Submitted photo)

By MICHAEL BUGEJA, Copyright 2020 Iowa Capital Dispatch

Few things in life come with clear, concise and reliable instructions.

Babies do not; they arrive without warning, and you need a library to raise them. Instructions change with each generation. All self-help genres — how to marry, divorce, get well, get rich, get smart, eat better, stay fit — require new editions.

That is not the case with ethics. Want to live them? Here’s how:

  • Distinguish between good and bad, outcomes over which we have little control, versus right and wrong, choices over which we have much control.
  • Foresee short-term versus long-term consequences before making choices.
  • Accept responsibilities for choices, no matter if the outcome is good or bad.
  • See the world as it is rather than through personal filters of self-interest, ego or fear.
  • Apply only as much power as needed to resolve a challenge without creating greater problems or harm to innocent others.

The instructions are ancient. They come from on high, as in the Delphi oracle — where Apollo’s minions gave self-help — and on low, in Plato’s cave. The sages knew them in Asia, Africa and the Americas.

If you live by these instructions, you become a “superior” human being, at least according to the Chinese philosopher Confucius (551-479 BC): “The superior man understands what is right; the inferior man understands what will sell.”

Kind of resonates today, huh?

Perhaps no American leader understood ethics more than John Quincy Adams, sixth president of the United States and son of President John Adams. He tried to do the right thing, promoting human rights, fighting slavery, avoiding war, and affirming natural law — life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

His motto was: “Always vote for principle, though you may vote alone.” So of course he was a one-time president (1825-29).

Nevertheless, he continued his public service as a member of the House of Representatives where he served from 1831 until his death in 1848.

His greatest moment did not happen in the White House but in 1841 as a defense attorney in the Supreme Court. It involved an international incident that ended up on the U.S. shore. Case law here was still evolving, and this one involved slavery.

According to the 1840 census, the U.S. population was 17,069,453, including 2,487,355 slaves, or almost 15% of the country.

Odds were against him.

Some 53 kidnapped Africans on the Spanish slave ship Amistad broke free and killed some crew members, demanding to be returned to their homeland. The crew instead took them to New England, where they were taken into custody.

Adams argued on behalf of the Africans in United States v. The Amistad. He based his defense on the concept of right and wrong. The Africans’ rebellion was justified, he stated, because they had a natural right to be free. They fought for liberty just as Americans did in the Revolution.

According to the court transcript, Adams said:

“When the Amistad first came within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States, acts of violence had passed between the two parties, the Spaniards and Africans on board of her, but on which side these acts were lawless, on which side were the oppressors, was a question of right and wrong.”

And he won the case.

Adams foresaw the civil war before any of his contemporaries. He knew that doing the right thing could end in bad outcomes. In his inaugural address, he acknowledged the challenge of embracing “a Constitution founded upon the republican principle of equal rights,” human rights, justice, “the purity” of elections and “inviolate” freedoms of the press and religious affiliation.

We confront those very issues to this day.

Ethics are easy when nothing is at stake. So much is at stake in the current political environment, including student debt, health care costs, poverty, race relations, climate change, drug addiction, global trade, immigration and budget deficits.

Elected officials may know right from wrong but too often make easy choices in their own self-interest, ignoring long-term consequences and blaming their opponents when outcomes are bad. In doing so, they create greater problems.

That is old news.

We may not be able to solve our continuing problems to everyone’s satisfaction. But we do have instructions on how to do that, if not by our collective vote than by our choices at home, school and work.

We have to live our ethics every day, or they lapse and we relapse. Responsibility takes effort. There are always consequences and new problems. “Try and fail,” John Quincy Adams said, “but don’t fail to try.”

That’s all we can ask of ourselves and our loved ones.

(Michael Bugeja is the author of “Living Media Ethics” and “Interpersonal Divide in the Age of the Machine.”  He is a regular contributor to Iowa Capital Dispatch and is writing a series of columns on the topic of “Living Ethics.”)

Deadly Censorship: China and Coronavirus

Whistlerblower physician Li Wenliang who warned the world about the deadly coronavirus and was punished by police for spreading rumors, died of the disease in Wuhan Central Hospital. He was hailed a hero on the mircoblogging site Weibo, which carried the hashtag #IWantFreedomOfSpeech (now banned). His case shows the dangers of a world without journalism.

In the wake of his death, The Guardian reported “outrage and frustration felt across China over the initial cover-up of the deadly virus.” Some 1.5 billion Weibo users alone expressed their anger and grief on how Dr. Li had been treated.

According to the Guardian, Li was one of eight people detained for spreading rumors about the dangerous disease, with “the fates of the other seven, also believed to be medical professionals,” still unknown.

Government censorship not only silences truth but also often counters with propaganda and misinformation to minimize the impact on policy and national image. An example occurred with the 1986 meltdown of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in then Soviet Ukraine, which threatened all of Europe. To this day, the death toll from the meltdown has yet to be disclosed but has been estimated between 4,000 and 27,000 people.

The New York Times has reported that China had 20,438 confirmed cases of the disease as of early February. During the SARS outbreak, at this time, it had 5,327 cases.

A pandemic risks the lives of thousands.

Conversely, a free press saves lives. Censorship kills, as history has shown us from Chernobyl to coronavirus. Worse, in the absence of journalism, social media spreads misinformation that scientists have difficulty addressing or correcting. That has led to the term “infodemic,” prompting the World Health Organization to work with tech companies to minimize falsehoods about the coronavirus and other diseases.

Pelosi Rips Page from Trump’s Playbook

On the eve of a likely impeachment acquittal in the Senate, President Trump refuses to shake House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s hand at the start of his State of the Union speech. She responds by ripping it up. But her act had other ramifications: It stole the limelight from the White House.

The night began with President Trump refusing the obligatory handshake with the Speaker of the House. It was, after all, her House. Literally, he was an invited guest. Had Nancy Pelosi let that slight of hand pass, the next day’s headlines might have mentioned the ire between the two, but the focus would have been on what the President said about the economy and other positive talking points.

When she ripped up the speech, she framed the next day’s news. The video of her went viral, especially when Republicans and Trump supporters took the bait and went to social media with harsh posts and tweets. Here’s a representative one from former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who alluded to a crude remark:

The White House was more measured in its response:

Pelosi told reporters it was “the courteous thing to do, given the alternative.” She did explain what the alternative might have been. Later she said the Trump speech was “a manifesto of mistruths.”

CNN called the act unprecedented behavior for a speaker, aggressively rude and unapologetically meant to rile up her base. It was divisive, but effective.”

She stole Trump’s show and a page out of his news framing playbook.  

The act itself may or may not have been intentional, but it certainly qualified as manipulation, striking Trump’s weakness for ratings and limelight.

Pelosi did the same thing in 2019 when she condescendingly applauded Trump, rolled her eyes and otherwise undermined his message.

Superbowl Ads Feature Women Role Models

Superbowl advertising on occasion has stereotyped women, but three ads this year depicted role models–an NFL coach, two soccer stars and an astronaut. All three ads also featured powerful hashtags and mottoes.

Be The One: Katie Sowers

The Microsoft Surface advertisement featured Katie Sowers, offensive assistant coach for the San Francisco 49ers, narrating her ambition to play football. She reads a childhood diary entry: “I hope someday to be on a real football team.” Later in the ad she makes cogent points about NFL players and stereotypes:

These guys have been learning from women their whole lives—moms, grandmas, teachers. We have all these assumptions about what women do in life, what men do. I’m glad my daughter is old enough to see this and how significant it is. I’m not trying to be the best female coach. I’m trying to be the best coach.

The Secret Kicker | Super Bowl Ad #KickInequality

World Cup champions Carli Lloyd and Crystal Dunn are featured as field goal kicker and holder in this deodorant ad. It’s a close game, with their visiting team losing 24-23 with three seconds on the clock. The camera pans to the stands, and the tension on fans’ faces is apparent. The kick is good, and the visiting team wins game. Audience in the stands cheers without realizing the identity of the “secret kicker.” The players take off their helmets. There is a long pause until recognition kicks in, and the crowd cheers again, this time for women.


Journalist Katie Couric plays herself as an anchor who asks, “Is there enough space in space for women?” Then we meet three women astronauts an heading toward an Olay spacecraft. Astronaut Nicole Scott plays herself alongside actress Busy Phillips and YouTube personality Lilly Singh. When the craft lifts off and reaches outer space, Phillips quips, “We have the opposite of a problem”–a reference to James A. Lovell’s report to NASA: “Houston, we have a problem.” Singh adds, “There’s so much space up here.” Scott retorts, “I could have told you that.” Another actor, Taraji P. Henson, serves as mission control flight chief in front of a sign that says, “Girls who code,” a reference to a non-profit organization supporting girls in computer science: “When we make space for women, we make space for everyone.” The video cuts back to Phillips and Singh and a sign that reads: “Tweet @Olayskin #MakeSpaceForWomen” and “$1 for Girls to Code.” Then Phillips presses an Olay button, thinking she is adding a donation. But it’s the eject button, hurling her and Singh into space.

The dialogue (i.e. “There’s so much space up here”) and the last scene might have ended better, as it undercuts the proactive message; but the campaign’s support of Girls Who Code more than makes up for the cliché attempts at humor.

While the advertisements were largely devoid of stereotypes, the half-time show featuring Shakira and Jennifer Lopez sparked debate on whether the performance was empowering or sexist. You could make both arguments, as USA Today noted in an article titled: “Empowering or Objectifying?” In one sequence, choreography featured upside-down disembodied legs of dancers, classic objectification.


More important, no other advertisement during the game featured blatant stereotypes, branding a company for years to come. Nevertheless, several fell short, according to the Washington Post, which published “The Five Worst Superbowl Commercials.”



Living ethics: Human condition v. human nature

By Michael Bugeja, Iowa Capital Dispatch

Donald Trump points to his head, wearing a red hat, and standing in front of an American flag.

Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at Fountain Park, Ariz., on March 19, 2016. in Fountain Hills, Arizona. (Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images)

When discussing political candidates, media often use (and sometimes confuse) the terms “human condition” and “human nature.” No one bothers to define them.

What, exactly, is the human condition? What is human nature?

The educational platform, Study.com, defines both. The human condition concerns our positive and negative qualities whereas human nature involves our emotional responses to those traits. “It seems the human condition connects us to each other and the universal story we are all telling together.”

Politicians tell stories. They want us to connect with them.

Elizabeth Warren, Democratic candidate for president, believes access to universal health care heals the human condition. She wants to end corruption because greed is part of human nature.

Bernie Sanders feels the same way, perhaps more intensely.

Joe Biden believes Donald Trump, a privileged billionaire, doesn’t understand the human condition; worse, Biden says, the president’s rhetoric appeals to “the worst damn instincts of human nature.”

It’s more complex (of course it is) when it comes to Pete Buttigieg. The Wall Street Journal complains about Buttigieg’s “abstract and slippery verbiage” that leaves us wondering what the candidate meant. “Will the former mayor of South Bend liberate us from the human condition?”

At his rallies, President Trump rarely references the human condition. When it comes to human nature, he uses nicknames — “Pocahontas,” “Sleepy Joe,” “Crazy Bernie” — to describe rivals Warren, Sanders and Biden. His nickname for Mayor Pete is more complex (of course it is): “Alfred E. Neuman,” the gap-toothed mascot on the cover of the humor magazine, “Mad.”

“I’ll be honest. I had to Google that,” Buttigieg said when he heard it.

Pundits often associate Trump policies with the human condition. They explicate human nature to explain the president’s appeal.

The esteemed Brookings Institution posted this about Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner’s Middle East peace efforts: “To assume that the promise of economic improvement would outweigh ordinary human aspirations of a people who have painfully struggled for decades is to miss the nature of the human condition.”

That quote convolutes both concepts: human condition and nature.

In 2016, The Atlantic psychoanalyzed the president to prophecy how his administration would function. “If all human beings are, by their very nature, social actors, then Donald Trump seems to be more so — superhuman, in this one primal sense.” The psychology professor who wrote the rambling 9,000-word piece predicted the hallmark of the Trump presidency would be “winning at any cost.”

Some could have summed it up with a haiku.

The human condition also can be pegged to our metaphysical duality: consciousness and conscience. Consciousness tells us we come into the world alone, and we leave it alone. Conscience implies what is in me is in you.

It doesn’t matter how you think about these concepts — scientifically or theologically. You can say we are social creatures made of star-stuff who care about each other because of natural selection. Or you can say we are divine creatures made of soul-stuff who care about each other because of religion.

Fact is, most of us fluctuate between two polarities. Sometimes we’re alone in our struggles. Other times, we seem connected. We go back and forth. That is how it feels to be human, ciphering inner voices with differing messages, confounding us about our nature and identity.

Benjamin Franklin who helped program American morality with his 13 virtues — frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, humility, etc. — was just as perplexed as the rest of us.

In a 1782 letter to a theologian, Franklin wrote that human beings are more disposed to do evil than good, taking pleasure in killing rather than healing each other. We assemble great armies, Franklin wrote, to slay as many of the enemy as possible and then find glory in exaggerating the number.

As we approach the Feb. 3 Iowa Caucuses, we might ponder the conundrum about human condition and human nature. When Franklin wrote, frustrated about efforts to find lasting peace abroad, stakes were high. Monarchs were the norm. Democracy was an experiment.

In our time, stakes are so much higher. Armies can destroy the world in the short term. Climate change, in the longer. Health care may be a natural right for Americans who embrace life, liberty and happiness.

Which candidate can harmonize consciousness with conscience so that one informs the other? Whose platform intuits consequences of actions before taking them and accepts responsibility thereafter? Who affirms forgiveness, compassion, empathy? What can unite a divided nation?

Here’s another test for the best presidential candidate: Ask them to define “human condition” and “human nature.”

Then judge accordingly.

Biased Cropping

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Technology, Ethics and Kobe Bryant’s Death

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It must have been harrowing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Best Performance of Student Newspaper Journalism

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

They set the standard for future generations.

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are 10 ways to show gratitude:

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

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

Emotional Toll of Execution Coverage

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

By Danielle Ferguson

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

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

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

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

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

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

I broke when I read Rhines’ last meal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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