Category Archives: Accuracy

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.

 

 

 

 

Lessons From Plagues

 

 

European plague. the guardian.com photo.

 

By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

 

The history of plagues and pandemics shows some similarities in the way they spread, and how people react.

Travelers, whether soldiers or traders, often were the super spreaders of their day.

Quarantine is a centuries-old strategy against pandemics. Wearing masks is an old defense too, including public resistance to wearing them.

Another similarity is that millions of people die. Survivors muddle through, sometimes with the help of modern medical treatment. But medicine often was useless against plagues. Blame it all on civilization.

“Plagues and epidemics have ravaged humanity throughout its existence, often changing the course of history,” writes Owen Jarus in livescience.com., offering a list of 20 of the worst epidemics and pandemics in history. At times, they signaled the end of entire civilizations.

The list starts with an epidemic 5,000 years ago that wiped out a prehistoric village in China. Bodies of the dead were stuffed inside a house that was burned down at a site called Hamin Mangha in northeastern China. Prehistoric mass burial sites dating to roughly the same time suggest an epidemic swept the entire region.

Jarus’s list ends with the Zika Virus epidemic dating from 2015 to the present. The impact of the Zika epidemic in South America and Central America won’t be known for several years. It is spread by mosquitoes and can attack infants still in the womb, causing birth defects.

 Learning From the Past

Focusing on what we’ve learned from past pandemics, Tim McDonnell in quartz.com starts with the Antonine plague beginning in 165 AD, one of the world’s first epidemics. A form of smallpox or measles, legionnaires returning from a siege in modern-day Iraq brought it to Rome. It devastated the Roman army, fueled the growing popularity of Christianity and was an early contributor to the empire’s eventual collapse. It also offered an early glimpse into a key tenet of virology: Disease outbreaks are deadliest when introduced to a population for the first time, when people lack immunity.

Genoese traders brought the plague known as the Black Death to Europe after escaping a siege in which a Mongol general used infected corpses as a weapon. Spread by fleas, the plague killed up to 23 million people, one-third of Europe’s population, from 1347 to 1351.

The first true flu pandemic appeared in the summer of 1580 in Asia, writes McDonnell, and quickly spread over trade routes into Europe and North America. Earlier cases might have occurred among Greek soldiers fighting the Peloponnesian War in 430 BC. The first reference to “influenza” in scientific literature dates to 1650 and comes from the Italian word “influence.”

Possibly the worst medical disaster in history, the 1918 Spanish Flu infected a third of the global population and killed up to 50 million people. It revealed how many lives can be saved by social distancing. Cities that cancelled public events had far fewer cases. The disease spread quickly in the United States and Europe through troop movements during World War I, infecting armies involved in the conflict.

A pandemic occurs when a disease turns into a global outbreak, writes M. David Scott in Listverse.com. Covid-19 is now considered a pandemic. It is causing countries to close their borders, urge people to stay indoors and order businesses to cease operations. Scott lists the top 10 deadly pandemics of the past. This list includes leprosy of the Middle Ages, a bacterial disease that can lead to damaged nerves, skin, eyes and respiratory tracts. Called “the living dead,” lepers were considered “unclean” and had to wear bells to signal their presence. It is believed Europe had about 19,000 leper houses about this time because lepers were forbidden in many locations.

Plagues Spawned By Civilization

Though plagues often are described as threats to civilizations, Andrew Sullivan writes in New York Magazine that plagues are spawned by civilization.

“Plague is an effect of civilization,” writes Sullivan. “The waves of sickness through human history in the past 5,000 years (and not before) attest to this, and the outbreaks often became more devastating the bigger the settlements and the greater the agriculture and the more evolved the trade and travel.”

We live in a genocidal graveyard, he contends, and plagues remind humans of their mortality. The story is far from over.

“As the human population reaches an unprecedented peak, as cities grow, as climate change accelerates environmental disruption, and as globalization connects every human with every other one, we have, in fact, created a near-perfect environment for a novel pathogen-level breakout. Covid-19 is just a reminder of that ineluctable fact and that worse outbreaks are almost certain to come.” He calls Covid-19 “mercifully, relatively mild in its viral impact, even though its cultural and political effects may well be huge.” It could serve as a harbinger.

At times like this, humans scramble for cures and defenses. And those have histories of their own.

Centuries-old Strategy

“In the new millennium, the centuries-old strategy of quarantine is becoming a powerful component of the public health response to emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases,” writes Eugenia Tognotti of the University of Sassari in Italy.

“During the 2003 pandemic of severe acute respiratory syndrome, the use of quarantine, border controls, contact tracing and surveillance proved effective in containing the global threat in just over three months. For centuries, these practices have been the cornerstone of organized responses to infectious disease outbreaks.”

But these methods are controversial and raise political, ethical and socioeconomic conflicts.

Even during the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic more than a century ago, resistance to wearing face masks was as controversial as it is today, writes Christine Hauser in the New York Times. Those who objected to the practice were called “mask slackers” and fined or jailed.

“The masks were called muzzles, germ shields and dirt traps,” wrote Hauser. “They gave people a ‘piglike snout.’ Some people snipped holes in their masks to smoke cigars. Others fastened them to dogs in mockery. Bandits used them to rob banks.”

Masks Stoke Division

As the 1918 influenza pandemic raged in the United States, masks of gauze and cheesecloth became the facial front lines in the battle against the virus, she wrote. “But as they have now, the masks also stoked political division. Then, as now, medical authorities urged the wearing of the masks to help slow the spread of disease. And then, as now, some people resisted” while thousands of Americans were dying in a deadly pandemic.

The Covid-19 pandemic behaves in unexpected ways, writes Laura Helmuth in scientificamerican.com, making it difficult to keep up with current findings. People tend to remember the first things they learned of the disease, making it psychologically difficult to replace old information with new knowledge. Helmuth listed nine of the most important things we’ve learned in the past seven months. Among them:

*Covid-19 outbreaks can happen anywhere. Chinese people got it where they buy groceries. Italians got it through their habit of greeting each other with kisses on the cheeks. People on cruise ships got it because of the buffets. People in nursing homes got it because they are frail. People in New York got it because the city is crowded.

*Covid-19 can sicken and kill anyone, not just the elderly but teenagers and children too.

*Contaminated surfaces are not the main danger.

*It’s in the air. When people cough or sneeze, they expel droplets or particles of mucus and saliva that carry the virus.

*Many people are infectious without being sick.

*Warm weather will not stop the virus.

*Masks work.

*Racism, not race, is a risk factor.

*Misinformation kills.

  Infodemic of Misinformation

As governments fight the Covid-19 pandemic, snopes.com is fighting an “infodemic” of rumors and misinformation about the pandemic.

A common phenomenon during crises, said the fact-checking organization, is attempts by people to find patterns in them as a way to control or understand events.

A common misperception, said Snopes, is that plagues happen every 100 years by citing those in 1720, 1820, 1920 and 2020.

“It’s an example of the common technique of creating the impression of a regular pattern by cherry-picking a small amount of (not necessarily relevant) data, while completely ignoring a much larger body of related data that doesn’t fit the desired pattern,” said Snopes. The misperception ignored pandemics in years that did not end in 20.

At this writing, the medical community is struggling to find a vaccine to cure or treat Covid-19. That is another history in the making, likely to be filled with misconceptions and misinformation before it all plays out.

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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

 

St. Joseph Medical Center photo

 

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.

 

 

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.

Past Terrors Shook The Nation

Polio patients in iron lungs. New York Daily News photo

By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

As uncomfortable as it is to us now, the coronavirus pandemic will interest future historians as another cataclysmic eruption distorting lives and causing death around the world.

They happened before. Every generation, it seems, worries about some kind of existential threat. They are events that grab us by the throat and leave lasting impressions

The struggle against COVID-19 is described as a war likely to last 12 to 24 months.

War, whether in medical or military terms, is a good description. One of its definitions is to “state one’s intent to suppress or eradicate.” The medical community is doing its best to suppress or eradicate the coronavirus as it tries to do the same to us biologically. It’s a war against a “novel” virus, meaning it’s new and the way it acts is largely unknown.

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.

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.