Category Archives: Accountability

Ethical Interviewing

 

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By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

 

Keeping control of an interview is one of a journalist’s basic jobs.

That might sound easy, but it can be difficult if the ground rules are not spelled out in advance so both the journalist and the person being interviewed know what to expect.

This was the key issue in a 2018 call to the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists from a magazine editor in New Zealand.

Making ethical decisions in journalism can be difficult. That’s why the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists, founded in 2001, exists. It serves as a sounding board for journalists who want to do the right thing, but are not always sure how to do that. Written reports are kept on every inquiry.

Audio recording and notes

“I conducted an interview with an individual who knew that an audio recording was being made, in addition to my note-taking,” said the editor. “I wrote up the article and gave him the opportunity fact-check it. He removed several key statements because he said that they could result in him losing his job. At no point did he say that I had misquoted him or taken his comments out of context, merely that the statements were controversial.

“The comments he made on tape are an accurate representation of his actual feelings, but I know for a fact that he tells different things to different people in order to ingratiate himself with them. Am I required to run his approved version of the article, or can I run my original? Am I permitted to let anyone else listen to the taped conversation? It’s a dilemma which is weighing pretty heavy on my mind, so I’d really appreciate any advice you can offer.”

The call-taker in this case was David Ozar, who taught ethics at Loyola University Chicago, and was professor of social and professional ethics in the Department of Philosophy.

“There are a bunch of professional ethical issues here,” Ozar wrote in an email to the editor. For starters, he suggested consulting the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics, where “you might find a number of them referred to and advice offered.”

A mutual understanding

“My first thought is that it does not sound like you and the interviewees had a clear mutual understanding of what was going on. He clearly did not expect you to publish what you heard, but only what he accepted for publication. So the SPJ’s advice to ‘be cautious when making promises, but keep the promises you make’ is relevant. If you were to reveal his actual words without informing him, you would almost certainly be violating the unstated agreement he though you and he were making. So there is an ethical question whether the shortfall in the agreement was yours or his, and my instinct is that it was yours for not making your intentions clearer.

“So I think you need to inform him of the problem and get his OK to publish what he said rather than the redacted version he provided. If he fails to agree and you want to publish (or otherwise take that information beyond just you and him by showing it to someone else), the only exception to doing what he asks that I can think of is identified in this advice from SPJ: ‘Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information unless traditional, open methods will not yield information vital to the public.’ That is, you have to determine if acting surreptitiously (by publishing what he has not in confidence (said) to you and has not approved being published) involves information vital to the public, and ‘vital’ is a pretty strong criterion.

“And even if you do that, your report would need to say that you were publishing this against the will of the person being quoted. Those are my first thoughts, but obviously I don’t know any more about the situation than you left in your brief message online. I would be happy to chat more by email if I have missed anything important about the situation. Let me know if that is the case.”

Editor’s response

The New Zealand editor responded by email, saying: “Thank you so much for replying to my query. I certainly appreciate your insights and the additional resources, and will be sure to bear these pointers in mind in the future. His ‘approved’ version of the content is the one which went to print. It felt like the morally appropriate thing to do.”

This case demonstrates the type of ethical issues confronting professional journalists, and what the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists does to help them.

From a journalist’s perspective, showing a story to a source before it is published carries risks. Before doing so, it would be wise to stress that you want to check facts, or the accuracy of specific descriptions or explanations. It is not an open invitation to rewrite the story as the source might have written it. Another way to do this would be to read back to the source a sentence or paragraph of the story that the journalist wants fact-checked. This keeps the focus on what you want fact-checked. Otherwise, when confronted with their own candid words, sources sometimes decide they want to put their own spin on the story to sound smarter, diplomatic, funnier or politically correct.

AdviceLine is a free service, staffed by four university professors who are experts in ethics. AdviceLine advisors do not tell professional journalists what to do, but engage them in a discussion of benefits and harms involved in the case, leading journalists to reach decisions based on best journalism ethics practices.

AdviceLine is partnered with the Chicago Headline Club, a professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

Our aim is to assist each caller make ethical decisions that:

*Are well informed by available standards of professional journalistic practice, especially the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics.

*Take account of the perspectives of all the parties involved in the situation.

*Employ clear and careful ethical thinking in reaching a decision.

Put yourself in our shoes. What advice would you have given to the New Zealand editor? Was there a better way to answer her dilemma? You be the ethicist. What ethics resources would you cite to answer her query?

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The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was founded in 2001 by the Chicago Headline Club (Chicago professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) and Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics and Social Justice. It partnered with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2013. It is a free service.

Professional journalists are invited to contact the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for guidance on ethics. Call 866-DILEMMA or ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org.

Election Ethics Dilemma

 

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By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

Elections often are seen as a chance to toss the rascals out of office.

But what if a reporter is worried that his work might allow a rascal to get into office?

That was the dilemma facing Victor Crown, assistant editor of Illinois Politics Magazine years ago. It was a dilemma that often faces political reporters: How information harmful to one political candidate might favor an opposing candidate.

Crown called the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists, a free service partnered with the Chicago Headline Club, a professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. It was among the first calls to AdviceLine, which began operating on Jan. 22, 2001.

Something Bad to Happen

“I am about to do a story that may cause something bad to happen,” Crown told Dr. David Ozar, an AdviceLine call-taker who taught ethics at Loyola University Chicago.

Crown was writing an article about alleged conflicts of interest by republican U.S. senator Peter Fitzgerald of Illinois — described by Crown as a banking lawyer, a bank stockholder and a bank director — and his voting record on banking bills.

Publishing the story could prove helpful to a Fitzgerald political rival, and Crown feared that might be the worst of two evils.

“So he is wondering if he should sit on the story and not publish it, in order to avoid the potentially good consequences for a (rival) public official he does not trust or respect,” Ozar wrote in his report on this case.

AdviceLine cases usually are considered confidential, but Crown gave his permission for his case to be made public.

Someone To Talk To

As in most calls from journalists, Crown was looking for somebody to talk to about his ethics-in-government dilemma. Journalists sometimes call to confirm whether the manner in which they handled a story was ethically correct.

“We talked at length about weighing the professional obligation to tell the truth with courage against the potential negative effects of doing so…,” wrote Ozar. “Since conflict of interest on the part of the person being investigated is in itself a subtle ethical matter, there was also a lot of conversation between us about harmful versus non-harmful conflicts…”

In effect, Ozar urged Crown to follow one of the leading concepts of the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics: Seek the truth and report it.

Releasing The Information

In the end, Crown put all of his investigative information on a web site, so it could be examined by other journalists and the public to determine how well his evidence supported his report on Fitzgerald.

Crown took this action after discussing it with Ozar, who wrote: “I also judged that this is the most impartial way to release this information.”

Ozar concluded that Crown decided to publish “because it is the professionally right thing to do and because the other moral/ethical considerations in the matter are not sufficiently weighty to outweigh his professional commitments.”

Fitzgerald served in the U.S. senate from 1999 until his retirement in 2005, when he decided not to run for reelection. He was followed by democrat Barack Obama, who won in a landslide, becoming the senate’s only African-American member.

The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists has handled about 1,000 inquiries since it began operating in 2001.

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The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was founded in 2001 by the Chicago Headline Club (Chicago professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) and Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics and Social Justice. It partnered with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2013. It is a free service.

Professional journalists are invited to contact the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for guidance on ethics. Call 866-DILEMMA or ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org.

 

 

Ethics Quiz Answers

 

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By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists.

No doubt you’ve been waiting for the answers to that journalism ethics quiz posted earlier featuring samples of questions answered in the past by the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists.

Some people just can’t resist matching their wits with AdviceLine ethics gurus who answer queries from professional journalists, some of them on deadline. That’s what AdviceLine, a free service, does.

In many cases, answering ethics questions is like walking a tight-rope. AdviceLine advisors don’t tell callers what to do. Instead, the advisors engage callers in a discussion of benefits and harms involved in each case, leading journalists to make their own decisions.

For those just tuning in, let me explain. AdviceLine is staffed by four university professors trained in ethics. AdviceLine is partnered with the Chicago Headline Club, a professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, and with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

Our goal is to assist each caller make ethical decisions that are well informed by standards of professional journalistic practice. So let’s get started.

Case One

Case one involved a woman who got into a conflict with security guards for riding topless on public transit. She asked the news editor of a major metropolitan daily to remove her name from a high-interest story about the conflict. In a similar case, a California editor says he is getting requests to remove old stories from the paper’s electronic archives. They include a person who became divorced, a person convicted of a felony five years ago and a beauty shop that wants the name of a former beautician removed from an old story about the shop. Is there anything unethical about news organizations keeping electronic archives, or is there an ethical requirement to honor such requests?

AdviceLine advisors write a detailed report on each query. David Ozar, emeritus professor of philosophy at Loyola University Chicago, was the advisor in this case. The call came from the executive editor of a California community newspaper.

“We discussed the reason for archives as the starting point for sorting out the ethics here,” Ozar wrote, “since this is an issue of benefit/harm and the first issue is what benefit the archives offer the community. The answer is the benefit of an historical record, which of its very nature is therefore historical (and) has information in it which is now outdated.”

Ethics of Archives

Ozar discussed with the editor whether there is a significant ethical difference between a paper archive and an electronic archive? The answer is two-fold: The electronic archive is much more useful to the community because it is so much more easily accessed and searched. It is of greater benefit to the community than a paper archive would be. But by the same token, searching each of them means that old information that some individuals might prefer to not have so accessible is readily accessible.

But now we can ask if there is an ethical difference between paper and electronic archives that leads to an obligation to block access when requested in the electronic one and not so in the paper one? “The answer seems to be no,” writes Ozar. If newspapers want to assist concerned individuals,  they “should not do so by removing information from the historical record.”

A newspaper may choose to see if Google will assist these people, or may choose to cooperate with Google if Google decides to help these people. But, the paper has no obligation to bear great expense to help these people block access, and in fact should view it as being, at most, an act of kindness (that is not unethical) rather than something they are ethically bound to do.

“All of this assumes, of course,” writes Ozar. “that the paper has taken the usual care in publishing only news that is supported by the evidence and has taken care also to correct any errors in its publishing.” Corrections should be electronically linked to the original stories so searchers see the corrections.

Case Two

Case two: The publisher of a Tennessee newspaper called AdviceLine, saying “I have a difficult confidentiality problem.” He is a member of the board of directors of the local United Way, a national coalition of charitable organizations. The publisher learned at an emergency board meeting called by the organization’s new executive director that the previous executive director failed to file federal IRS forms for not-for-profits and the local owes the federal government more than $20,000. The local would be fined $90 a day and risks losing its not-for-profit status if it fails to act within six weeks.

The publisher wants to know if it would be unethical to refrain from reporting the United Way problems until the situation is fixed? A United Way fund-raising campaign was under way at this time.

This case proved to be vexing to the AdviceLine volunteer staff, which includes both the university ethics experts who answer queries and professional journalists who understand newsroom practices. This case showed how ethicists themselves can disagree on what is ethical. The university ethicists and the professional journalists periodically met to review the cases to discuss how well the university ethicists responded to queries. In this case, they clashed.

In his report on the case, Ozar said, “we talked at length about benefit and harm.” They agreed that the public will likely be upset at this situation, but “there is no great loss to the public in not knowing this right at this time, whereas there is good reason to believe that, even with the corrective action already taken…, many people might reduce their contributions and many potential beneficiaries of United Way might suffer accordingly. That is, reporting this matter right now seems to produce more harm than benefit to the public.”

Confidentiality

Ozar reported that the publisher wondered if preserving the board’s confidentiality might appear to them and later to the public that he was involved in covering up something that, as a journalist, he should have reported. But Ozar talked him out of it, saying withholding the information for a time could be justified “from a professional ethics point of view” and even by the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics.

Ozar and I exchanged emails on this report, and I told him that his advice was “flat-out wrong.” The publisher’s responsibilities, I argued, were to his newspaper and to the community, not to United Way. Malfeasance at the United Way is a story the community deserves to know immediately. And, I added, Ozar was wrong about his interpretation of the SPJ code of ethics. It says: “Seek Truth and Report It.”

This case was a clear example whereby publishers who join civic groups open themselves to conflicts of interest. The credibility of the paper and the publisher could be seriously damaged once the public learns the paper delayed reporting the story.

Even one of the AdviceLine advisors who takes calls disagreed with Ozar’s advice, saying, “I am afraid I would not have given the same advice. The journalist’s job is to seek the truth and report it. Sitting on this kind of information can only deepen the public’s suspicion of cover-up and now by the new administration” at the local United Way. “I feel strongly the best approach for United Way is to be completely honest and forthcoming, so it follows I would believe the journalist should not sit on the story. When it finally comes out and it surely will, the speed with which the United Way acted will be a question and the journalist who knew will be subject to the same inquiry.”

At an AdviceLine team discussion later, Ozar defended his position. “I work very hard not to give advice, but facilitate thought,” he said. “Right now, I agree with his reasoning. This man (the publisher) was a thoughtful, careful person who was aware of all of the issues being raised. He believed he had serious obligations to the United Way as a member of the board. The only way out was to not be on the board.”

Ozar added that he called the publisher to tell him that other members of the AdviceLine team disagreed with his advice “and presented the concern that he was neglecting certain duties that he has as a journalist. And we hashed through the case again and couldn’t come up with a better decision.”

Case Three

Case three: Journalism sometimes is described as a sexy job, but there are limits. AdviceLine gets many calls about romantic entanglements. Here’s one that was especially interesting, with more details than most.

The managing editor of a California newspaper said one of his reporters was having an affair with the mayor of one of the towns the reporter covers. The editor also learned that she sent the mayor at least two stories about his town prior to publication.

A further complication was the discovery that a competing newspaper learned of the affair between the reporter and the mayor and might run a story about it. The managing editor called AdviceLine for guidance.

The AdviceLine advisor, Hugh Edmund Miller, until recently assistant professor of philosophy at Loyola University Chicago, pointed out that the rerporter violated two standards in the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics: To act independently and to avoid conflicts of interest. She tried to hide her relationship with the mayor and was leaking information to him.

And if the competing newspaper reported the affair, that could seriously damage the paper’s credibility and reputation.

Miller told the managing editor: “I think you should do something decisive and promptly. Either reassign her to an utterly different beat or function, at the minimum, or fire her.”

Either say, said Miller, consider disclosing the matter to the public before the competition does. The editor said that confirmed his instincts.

Calling a Caller

Usually, we at AdviceLine don’t know the outcome of our cases, or if callers take our advice. But occasionally I track down the callers to ask them how the case turned out. I found the former managing editor. He left the newspaper after 22 years and was working for state government.

“I wanted to fire her outright,” said the former managing editor. He took the case to the company’s human resources department, recommending that the reporter be fired. The HR department was not interested in that. It ruled that the reporter was entitled to have sex with whomever she chose. It was a personal matter.

But she was terminated for sending stories to the mayor before she showed them to her editor. Those stories were considered company property.

This case reminds us that the world is a crazy and unpredictable place. Journalists have codes of ethics and it’s usually a good idea to abide by them. Journalists should protect their integrity and the integrity of the media companies they work for.

Corporate HR departments are guided by different standards.

Case Four

Case four: A group of environmental activists in the Phoenix area was setting fire to unoccupied houses under construction in a development near or on a nature preserve. Nobody had been injured by the fires.

The activists called a small newspaper offering to meet a reporter for an interview to explain their reasons for burning the houses. Other media contacted by the activists told police, who were unable to identify the activists or prevent them from burning more houses.

The newspaper published a headline containing a coded message agreeing to meet with the activists. A reporter interviewed the activists in a city park and the newspaper published a story about the arsonists and their motives.

Only later were ethics questions raised about the way the newspaper handled the story. A Phoenix reporter called AdviceLine, asking how his own newspaper should cover the issue.

Should the newspaper have simply told police about the activists’ invitation, as other media groups did? Should it have informed police of an interview meeting where they could arrest the activists? Should the newspaper publish the story so the activists could make their case to the public, giving the public a much clearer and less frightening picture of the group’s aims and intentions? Should the newspaper have published personal information about the activists that might have helped police, putting the activists at greater risk of arrest?

Processing the Issues

“During a lengthy and thoughtful conversation, the caller and I processed the issues,” Ozar writes in his report on this case. “He had already thought through them very carefully, so my role, at his request, was chiefly to play ‘devil’s advocate’ to make sure every side of the issues involved had been explored. In fact, he had already examined the issues quite carefully. I agreed with him that, if the police were not being effective (the newspaper) might well have judged reasonably at the time that interviewing the contact would do the public more good than harm. And it also turned out that way, making the judgment of their actions after the fact even clearer. The caller’s view was that such promises of confidentiality are sometimes essential to news gathering and that this was properly judged to be one of those times. I raised questions about it, but nothing that weakened the caller’s judgment on the matter.”

Those are just four of the more than 1,000 ethics queries handled by AdviceLine since its inception in 2001. Nearly half of the cases involve conflict of interest.

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The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was founded in 2001 by the Chicago Headline Club (Chicago professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) and Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics and Social Justice. It partnered with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2013. It is a free service.

Professional journalists are invited to contact the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for guidance on ethics. Call 866-DILEMMA or ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org.

 

 

 

 

 

 

An Ethics Quiz

 

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By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

A pandemic makes journalism ethics more important.

The truth is more important than ever as rumors and false information swirl.

That’s where making ethical decisions comes into play. It’s hard to do it alone. That’s why the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists exists. Call 866-DILEMMA or go to ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org. It’s a free service, staffed by four university professors who teach ethics.

AdviceLine advisors do not tell professional journalists what they should do. Instead, these trained advisors engage them in a discussion of benefits and harms involved in the case, leading journalists to reach decisions based on best journalism ethics practices. AdviceLine is partnered with the Chicago Headline Club, a professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, and with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

Our aim is to assist each caller make ethical decisions that:

*Are well informed by available standards of professional journalistic practice, especially the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics.

*Take account of the perspectives of all the parties involved in the situation.

*Employ clear and careful ethical thinking in reaching a decision.

What sorts of issues come to AdviceLine? Nearly half of the ethical questions presented to AdviceLine concern conflicts of interest. The SPJ code of ethics tells journalists to “act independently,” but it is often difficult to know, when you are in the middle of a complicated situation, what is more compromising of journalistic independence and what is not.

So here’s a test, an ethics quiz, based on cases that came to AdviceLine. Journalists sheltering in place during the pandemic might welcome a chance to take an ethics break. You be the judge. What advice would you have given in these cases? On what would your advice be based? Put yourself in our shoes.

Case one: The news editor of a major metropolitan daily says the newspaper published a story about a woman who got into a conflict with security guards for riding topless on public transit. Her name ranks at the top of a Google hit list, and she wants her name removed from the story because it’s difficult to find a job.

Meanwhile, a California editor is getting requests to remove old stories from the paper’s website archives, or block them from Google’s search engine. The requests include a person who became divorced, a person convicted of a felony five years ago and a beauty shop that wants the name of a former beautician removed from an old story about the shop. Is there anything unethical about papers keeping electronic archives, or is there an ethical requirement to honor these requests?

Case two: The publisher of a countywide newspaper is a member of a local United Way board of directors. In an emergency meeting, the new United Way executive director revealed that the previous executive director failed to file the federal IRS forms for not-for-profits, resulting in a $20,000 fine, which could climb higher if the organization’s new executive director fails to file the forms within six weeks.

The publisher wanted to know if it would be unethical to refrain from reporting the United Way problems until the situation was fixed. The national United Way fund drive was under way at the time, and the local group feared donors would be less generous if they learned of the tax problems before it was fixed.

AdviceLine regularly gets calls asking if it is a conflict of interest for editors or publishers to join local civic groups or chambers of commerce.

Case three: Journalism sometimes is described as a sexy job, but there are limits. AdviceLine got a call from a California editor who said one of his reporters was having an affair with the mayor.

A Massachusetts reporter asked how soon she should tell her editor about a growing relationship with an attorney she met while covering court cases. And a Washington, D.C. editor proposed a rule forbidding his staff from dating any person who is a news source, or might become a news source. A reporter complained that would mean reporters could not date anyone, since anyone might become news. Is a rule against dating news sources going too far in the cause of ethics, or is it simply recognition that journalism requires higher standards? Or should journalists have a chance at romance like everyone else?

AdviceLine has gotten a number of calls on romance issues. It’s a hot topic. So in the interest of professional ethics, I’ll let the cat out of the bag on this one. AdviceLine advisors have answered this problem by saying journalists who are romantically involved with news sources could not be trusted to be impartial and neutral toward those news sources. Their partiality might harm the credibility of the newspaper or broadcasting company they work for. In one of the cases, an AdviceLine advisor said journalists should be forbidden to date sources, or if that is not possible, they should be removed from covering that source.

Do you agree? What’s your take on this one?

Case four: A group of environmental activists in the Phoenix area was setting fire to unoccupied houses under construction in a development near or on a nature preserve.

The activists sent a letter to a small newspaper offering to meet a reporter for an interview to explain the reasons for burning the houses. The editors pondered whether to give the letter to police, inform the police of the interview so the activists could be arrested, go ahead with an interview as requested and publish the story that explains the activists’ motives or do the interviews and publish all personal information gained from the activists and let police take it from there?

That’s a sample of what AdviceLine handles. It’s interesting work. Never dull.

Our mission is not only to help individual journalists reach informed ethical decisions, but to contribute to the greater discussion, understanding and body of knowledge regarding ethics and journalism – and to be an influential force in that effort.

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The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was founded in 2001 by the Chicago Headline Club (Chicago professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) and Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics and Social Justice. It partnered with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2013. It is a free service.

Professional journalists are invited to contact the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for guidance on ethics. Call 866-DILEMMA or ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org.

 

 

 

 

Face Masks Gain Credibility

 

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By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

“Oh, what a tangled web we weave…when first we practice to deceive.” – Walter Scott.

The debate or confusion over wearing a mask as a defense against coronavirus-19 is a tangle of mixed messages that began with deception.

It’s a good lesson in why honesty is the best policy, a concept government officials often don’t understand.

On March 2, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams told people to stop buying face masks to prevent the novel coronavirus, warning that they actually might increase risk of infection if not worn properly, wrote Jacqueline Howard of CNN.

“You can increase your risk of getting it by wearing a mask if you are not a health care provider,” Adams said during an interview on Fox & Friends. “Folks who don’t know how to wear them properly tend to touch their faces a lot and actually can increase the spread of coronavirus.”

The virus was spreading in communities, he acknowledged, but “there are things they shouldn’t be doing and one of the things they shouldn’t be doing in the general public is going out and buying masks.”

To emphasize, Adams tweeted: “Seriously people – STOP BUYING MASKS! They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus, but if health care providers can’t get them to care for sick patients, it puts them and our communities at risk!”

                        A reason for deception

There was the reason for the deception, which became more evident as weeks passed. Public officials worried that health care providers would not be able to get them if the public rushed out to buy them. And, for sure, the United States proved to be ill-equipped and unprepared for the coronavirus onslaught. At first, health care workers did voice concerns about supplies of personal protective equipment.

Hundreds of health care in Michigan were working without such equipment as covid cases exploded across the state, the Detroit News reported.

Let’s pause here for a moment to ask: Rather than telling the public the use of face masks was ineffective or even dangerous, why not tell the truth and say health care workers should be the first to get this valuable equipment? Why not ask for public cooperation? Public officials also are prone to withhold the truth when they say the public might panic if they knew the truth. It would make a lot more sense to explain the dangers and give the public time to prepare for an emergency. Public officials too often treat the public as though they are ignorant, unable to make decisions about their own welfare. So they lie, as though that is in the public interest. Public officials like to think they are smarter than everyone else, contrary to plenty of evidence.

But back to the coronavirus.

On March 30, the World Health Organization held a media briefing. WHO officials did not recommend mask wearing by healthy members of the general population. Masks, they said, should be worn by those with the disease or those in contact with them. Still, months after the pandemic began to spread, people remained unsure about whether a mask was needed to keep them safe. Meanwhile, South Korea and Japan distributed them to the public while the Czech Republic and Slovakia made wearing them mandatory.

                                      Updated guidance

On April 3, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidance about wearing face coverings during the pandemic. It advised Americans to wear non-medical cloth face coverings, including homemade coverings fashioned from household material. They should be worn in public settings, said CDC, like grocery stores and pharmacies, wrote Mandy Oaklander.

CDC recommended surgical quality masks only for people who already showed symptoms of coronavirus and must go outside, since wearing a mask can help prevent spreading the virus by protecting others nearby when you cough or sneeze. CDC did not recommend N95 face coverings, the tight-fitting masks designed to filter out 95% of particles from the air that you breathe – except for health care workers.

But people bought and used them, which says something about public wisdom.

Also on April 3, Donald Trump, president of the United States, said he would opt out of wearing a mask, calling public health recommendations voluntary.

“I don’t think I’m going to be doing it,” he said, suggesting that it would be awkward to do such a thing in the Oval Office. “Wearing a face mask as I greet presidents, prime ministers, dictators, kings, queens — I just don’t see it.”

After weeks of insisting Americans should not wear masks to prevent the disease, administration officials debated over reversing course. They were divided about the wisdom of advising Americans to cover their faces in public, fearing it would be a setback to the social distancing policy favored by officials. They recommended Americans wear non-medical cloth face coverings.

                                       Another turnabout

“At stake was another turnabout for a White House that has sown confusion with its response to the coronavirus pandemic sweeping the nation,” writes Kevin Liptak of CNN. “The debate over masks has come to encapsulate a federal effort marked by repeated reversals, conflicting recommendations, low stockpiles and competing internal interests that often lead to muddled messaging.”

Speaking at a White House briefing, U.S. Surgeon General Adams admitted: “It has been confusing to the American people.” The change, he said, resulted from new information showing that people without covid symptoms  were spreading the infection.

New guidelines, said Adams, advised Americans to wear cloth face masks in public settings where social distancing guidelines are difficult to maintain, such as grocery stores.

The argument that a public rush to buy face masks would jeopardize health care workers began crumbling, in the U.S. and in Great Britain.

The Guardian reported on April 23 that the claim by British ministers that public use of masks could jeopardize the National Health Service supplies “is disingenuous.”

“The face masks recommended for use in the community by various bodies are homemade cloth masks or reusable washable masks of the type used by cyclists,” reported The Guardian. “A recommendation for that type of mask is not likely to impact on the supply of the rather different single-use medical masks.”

                           Masks used in China

This should not have been too difficult to figure out in the United States or anywhere else, since masks were used widely in China against dense air pollution in metropolitan areas, like Shanghai and Beijing. Americans quickly resorted to tying bandanas across their faces, a tactic used by cowboys riding dusty trails. Odd something that simple did not occur to government officials struggling with who should wear face masks.

By June 25, the story shifted. “How Do You Deal With People Who Refuse to Wear a Mask?” wrote Barbara Krasnoff in “The Verge.”

“You’d think that months of reading about overflowing hospitals and mounting death statistics would scare almost anyone into following the current Centers for Disease Control recommendations: wear a mask in public spaces to protect others from possible infection, especially since there is no current way to be sure who may be an asymptomatic transmitter – particularly in relatively crowded urban areas,” Krasnoff wrote.

“However, these days, when I go out for a walk or to run errands, at least half the people I see are not wearing masks – or are wearing their masks around their necks, as though those pieces of cloth or paper are good-luck totems rather than items with a specific purpose.”

                               Only in America

By then, something strange had happened, something that might come under the heading of “only in America.” Refusing to wear a face mask became a political statement. People were following the example of President Trump. Eventually Trump did wear a mask, joking that it made him look like the Lone Ranger, a fictional character who fought outlaws in the Old West.

On June 30, Yahoo Life reported “a worrisome trend of public leaders speaking out against the use of protective face coverings, something that experts say is vital in slowing the spread of coronavirus.” Though Arizona broke a record with the highest single-day increase of covid cases only days earlier, a Scottsdale councilman removed his face mask, complaining “I can’t breathe,” during an anti-mask rally.

This clash between politics and medical science only deepened public confusion and anxiety over mixed messages from the Trump administration.

“What bothers the health care workers is mixed messaging from our leaders,” Dr. Luis Rosario, a critical care specialist, told Yahoo Life. “Why do you have to politicize a mask? I will never understand that.”

It is one of the oddities of the coronavirus assault. The refusal to wear masks is blamed for some pandemic deaths. Dr. Rosario said, “many of these people really didn’t need to die.”

By July 2, BBC News online reported that face coverings on public transport was mandatory in England and Scotland, and soon would be mandatory in shops in Scotland. This was in line with updated World Health Organization advice, which said non-medical face coverings should be worn in public where social distancing is not possible. In England, they should also be worn by hospital staff, outpatients and visitors.

                                Case counts climb again

By July 13, Bloomberg reported that many places that suffered most in the first wave of infections, including California, Louisiana, Michigan and Washington state, were seeing case counts climb again after months of declines.

Experts say the resurgence in the original covid battlegrounds had similar causes, according to Bloomberg. They include a population no longer willing to stay isolated indoors, Republicans who refuse face masks as a political statement, protests over police violence and young people convinced the virus won’t seriously hurt them.

This resistance to wearing masks is not new, wrote J. Alexander Navarro, assistant director of the Center for the History of Medicine, University of Michigan. It all happened before during the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. Health authorities campaigned for ordinances mandating face masks. Some proposed sentencing scofflaws to short jail terms and fines ranging from $5 to $200. Those refusing to wear masks were called “slackers.”

Debates over such regulations were just as vociferous then as they are now. A draft resolution in Portland, Oregon, led to a heated city council exchange, with one official declaring the measure “autocratic and unconstitutional,” adding that “under no circumstances will I be muzzled like a hydrophobic dog.” It was voted down.

“Deeply entrenched ideals of individual freedom, the lack of cohesive messaging and leadership on mask wearing and pervasive misinformation have proven to be major hindrances thus far, precisely when the crisis demands consensus and widespread compliance,” writes Navarro. “This was certainly the case in many communities during the fall of 1918. That pandemic ultimately killed about 675,000 people in the U.S. Hopefully, history is not in the process of repeating itself today.”

It’s chilling, though, to see how much history is repeating itself.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Philosopher George Santayana.

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The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was founded in 2001 by the Chicago Headline Club (Chicago professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) and Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics and Social Justice. It partnered with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2013. It is a free service.

Professional journalists are invited to contact the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for guidance on ethics. Call 866-DILEMMA or ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org.

 

 

Predicting a Future With Covid-19

Predicting a future with covid. Barrymoltz.com photo

By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

“Life as we know it” is a phrase used so blithely and innocently in the past, before the coronavirus ushered in a global pandemic that turned life as we know it into a big mystery.

How long will this deadly disease continue to stalk the world’s population? How many more cases? How many more deaths? Can it be cured or treated?  So far, there are more questions than answers.

In such uncertain times, humans respond by turning to an age-old tendency to divine the future with crystal balls, Ouija Boards, sorcerers, fortune-tellers and prophets. Today we call them predictions.

It’s always interesting to hear what people believe is in store for us. We normally get such reports at the advent of a new year, or the arrival of something totally unexpected.

One thing is certain: The disease already is changing life as we know it.

The AARP Bulletin appears to be among the first to make predictions on how life will change in the wake of this outbreak.

“Just a few months of life within the coronavirus pandemic has caused almost every business leader, researcher and planner to thoroughly rethink the future of America and how it will work for older Americans,” reports AARP, formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons.

Americans might rethink past pleasures, like leisurely browsing in stores. Or living in a small apartment in a congested city. Or going to a ballgame with 50,000 others in the stadium. Or going to crowded restaurants. Taking frequent vacations. Or use public transportation.

                                           Goodbye to handshakes

One epidemiologist, says AARP, predicts that handshakes will be retired, possibly for good. They said nothing about elbow-bumps. Others predict that downsizing retirees will choose less populated areas. Hyperattention to cleaning will be the new normal in aircraft, office buildings and wherever people gather.

It’s too early for a full exploration of how the pandemic will change future behavior, customs and policies. The coronavirus pandemic took the world by surprise, despite warnings from some scientists.

But this is a good time to consider whether past predictions by some of the smartest people in the world thought a pandemic or something like it was looming. For that, it’s worth looking at two reports delving 50 years into the future.

“What Will the World Be Like in 50 Years? 19 Futuristic Predictions,” appeared in Bustle.com in June, 2014, written by Seth Millstein.

“Predicting the future is tricky business,” allowed Millstein. “And while attempting to project decades into the future is damn-near impossible, plenty of people attempt to do so on the regular regardless. They’re called futurists, and it’s their job to predict what the world will look like in hundreds of years from now and beyond.”

Many predictions are comically off-base, wrote Millstein. The New York Times in 1920 proclaimed that “a rocket will never be able to leave the Earth’s atmosphere,” while Variety insisted in 1955 that rock and roll was merely a fad, and would “be gone by June.”

                                   Predictions by leading minds

Millstein went on to list 19 predictions by some of the leading minds. Right at the top was, “disease will be more common, as everybody will be physically closer to everyone else….” Though a pandemic was not mentioned specifically, the prediction touched on the spread of disease and scored a point for the futurists.

Also touching on health, the report said going to a doctor for a checkup will not be necessary in the future. Run a scanner over your body and results will be forwarded to a health network.

Futurists commented on global warming, population growth and technological advances.

The pandemic clashes with two of the predictions: That a majority of people will live in cities and that air travel “will be exponentially more awesome.” The coronavirus already is putting a damper on those expectations as people flee crowded urban areas with high virus death rates and avoid sitting shoulder-to-shoulder on aircraft without social distancing. Disease is reversing those trends, at least for now.

All of us are racing toward what is blithely called “the new normal,” which is yet to be fully defined.

                                         Future of digital life

Another fifty-year forecast, practically on the eve of the pandemic, looked at the future of digital life.

“Fifty years after the first computer network was connected, most experts say digital life will mostly change humans’ existence for the better over the next 50 years,” wrote Kathleen Stansberry, Janna Anderson and Lee Rainie, in October, 2019. “However, they warn this will happen only if people embrace reforms allowing better cooperation, security, basic rights and economic fairness.”

Their report is based on work by the Pew Research Center and Elon University’s Imaging the Internet Center. They asked 530 experts how lives might be affected by the evolution of the internet over the next 50 years. They included technology pioneers, innovators, developers, business and policy leaders, researchers and activists.

Disease is not specifically mentioned, but one finding involved living longer and feeling better. “Internet-enabled technology will help people live longer and healthier lives. Scientific advances will continue to blur the line between human and machine,” said the report.

Artificial intelligence is expected to take over repetitive, unsafe and physically taxing labor, leaving humans with more time for leisure, a claim made since the beginning of the technological revolution.

                                Hopeful and worrisome visions

The report is broken down into hopeful visions and worrisome visions. Among the hopeful visions:

* Digital life will be tailored to each user.

* A fully networked world will enhance opportunities for global collaboration, cooperation and community development, unhindered by distances, language or time.

* Expanded internet access could lead to further disruption of existing social and political power structures, potentially reducing inequality and empowering individuals.

Among the worrisome visions:

* The divide between haves and have-nots will grow as a privileged few hoard the economic, health and educational benefits of digital expansion.

* A powerful elite will control the Internet and use it to monitor and manipulate, while providing entertainment that keeps the masses distracted and complacent.

* Personal privacy will be an archaic, outdated concept, as humans willingly trade discretion for improved healthcare, entertainment opportunities and promises of security.

* Digital life lays you bare. It can inspire a loss of trust, often earns too much trust and regularly requires that you take the plunge even though you have absolutely no trust.

* The future of humans is inextricably connected to the future of the natural world. Without drastic measure to reduce environment degradation, the very existence of human life in 50 years is in question.

Some 72% of the respondents say there would be change for the better, 25% say there would be change for the worse and 3% believe there would be no significant change.

                              Updated predictions needed

The coronavirus was not yet loose in the world when this report came out. It might have changed perceptions and predictions.

Among those responding to the survey was John McNutt, a professor in the school of public policy and administration at the University of Delaware. He said:

“Not every technology is a good idea, and every advance should be carefully considered in terms of its consequence. On balance, technology has made much human progress possible. This is likely to continue. We will always have false starts and bad ideas. People will misuse technology, sometimes in horrific ways. In the end, human progress is based on creating a future underpinned by knowledge, not ignorance.”

It’s not a matter of good or bad outcomes, argues Erik Brynjolfsson, director of the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy, but rather “how will we shape the outcome, which is currently indeterminate?”

Fiona Kerr, industry professor of neural and systems complexity at the University of Adelaide, South Australia, saw it this way:  “People love bright, shiny things. We adopt them quickly and then work out the disadvantages, slowly, often prioritizing on litigious risk. The Internet has been a wonderful summary of the best and worst of human development and adoption — making us a strange mixture of connected and disconnected, informed and funneled, engaged and isolated, as we learn to design and use multipurpose platforms shaped for an attention economy.”

Attention economy is the recognition of attention as a limited and valuable resource subject to market forces. The coronavirus captured world attention and swayed market forces.

The futurists and the experts most likely are rethinking their notions of life as we know it in the next 50 years.

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The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was founded in 2001 by the Chicago Headline Club (Chicago professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) and Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics and Social Justice. It partnered with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2013. It is a free service.

Professional journalists are invited to contact the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for guidance on ethics. Call 866-DILEMMA or ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org.

 

 

Coronavirus Taking Mental Health Toll

Covid-19 taking a mental health toll. Web24.news photo.

By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

Writers often resort to the word “dystopian” to signify an imaginary place of misery and dread, a place beloved by horror and science-fiction movie fans.

Then along came covid-19, and the world finds it is such a place. It’s not fictitious. It’s real.

The toll this dreaded disease is taking on the human race is easy to measure in one way, and not so easy in another.

It’s relativity easy to count the dead, or those stricken, if reports are accurate.  By about mid-May, the count by those measures were 4.8 million cases worldwide, with 319,187 deaths and 1.8 million recovered.

Pandemic Ethics

A pandemic image. Allure.com photo.

By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

Look what happened to ethics in this time of a global viral pandemic.

It became important, a matter of life and death.

This became clear when the national demand for life-saving ventilators was greater than the supply, forcing doctors and medical technicians to decide which patients struggling to breathe gets them.

Until now, this is not how most people imagine ethics works. Mention ethics and they think it’s something for ivory tower scholars to ponder, but nothing that touches them personally, more a matter for study and debate.  A sleepy sort of science, they thought. By definition, ethics is a system of moral principles or values, of right or good conduct.

Americans tend to have a me-first attitude. If they need something, they want it now. The coronavirus humbled those attitudes as medical ethicists step in to decide who gets scarce medical resources. They must wait their turn, if at all.

Journalism of a Plague Year

Plague in Phrygia. Art Institute

Journalism of a Plague Year

By Hugh Miller

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

On April 3rd, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for the 14thCongressional district of New York, wrote in a tweet: “COVID deaths are disproportionately spiking in Black + Brown communities. Why? Because the chronic toll of redlining, environmental racism, wealth gap, etc. ARE underlying health conditions. Inequality is a comorbidity.”

The following Tuesday, April 7th, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, stood at a podium at the White House and praised the “incredible courage and dignity and strength and activism” of the gay community’s response to the AIDS crisis. Fauci, much of whose career has been dedicated to battling HIV/AIDS, then drew a connection between the “extraordinary stigma” which then attached to the gay community, and a similar stigma and marginalization which, he argued, today was increasing the burden and death toll imposed on African-American COVID-19 sufferers, who make up a disproportionately high number of fatalities of the latter-day plague.

As a philosopher and ethicist, I’ve been reflecting on the role of my discipline in coming to grips with this new and sudden event since it first burst into the headlines in early March. As the novel virus grew from an outbreak to an epidemic and then to pandemic dimensions, and the gravity of the illness associated with it, COVID-19, became clearer, the ethical approach to it became less so, to me.

Muzzled Scientists, Stifled Media

Muzzled scientists, stifled media: New restrictions on speaking directly to government scientists about the coronavirus are dangerous, writes Margaret Sullivan.

“We’re now at a moment when experts must be free to share their knowledge and front-line workers must be free to tell their stories without being muzzled or threatened — and certainly without being fired,” she writes. Lives depend on it.