October 12, 2022

I Watched ____ So You Don’t Have To

So there’s a long-running trope in the writing of tough reviews that starts this way: “I watched ____ so you don’t have to.” This signals that the review will pan whatever the thing is and offer an invitation to bask in confirmation bias instead. This move belongs solidly to the various tropes we might list under the heading “clickbait.”

So yesterday I tweeted this:

I “appreciate” the trope when it helps me avoid nonsense. But I did read this review because I’m interested in defining what a documentary is.

Proposition: Some documentaries engage in propaganda, but propaganda that employs features of the genre of documentary only as a rhetoric of legitimacy is not a documentary. Opinion and a strong point of view are necessary in the emotional medium of video/film. But there must be a foundation of information and knowledge.  Neil Postman offered an interesting way to think about this foundation. Information is statements about facts in the world. Knowledge is organized information embedded in a context. Many documentary projects live in these two formulations. The best ones, however, include Postman’s third feature: wisdom, the capacity to know what body of knowledge is relevant to solving significant problems.

[S]election Code fails all three. How do I know this? Not from the review. I know if because responsible journalism has already examined the information regarding the 2020 election and published knowledge. In a few cases, perhaps even wisdom. And none of it points to election fraud. All of it points to the Big Lie.

So, [S]election Code is not a documentary.

February 7, 2022

Media Ethics, Power, and My Use of Spotify

I introduce two questions in this podcast episode. First, what is this “media” in media ethics? That question is supposed to eventually get my students thinking about the power relationships in media organizations and where the burden of making ethical decisions lands. The second question comes at the end. I produce this podcast with Anchor. Spotify owns Anchor. I am fully capable of producing and syndicating this podcast on my own. I use Anchor because it’s easy.

Should I take the Rogan situation into account in my choice to produce this podcast with Anchor?

Podcast Transcript

I asked my media ethics students to ponder a question for our Wednesday evening class. Classes, however, have been canceled for a second day because of the big winter storm. So I’ll discuss it here.

What is this “media” we talk about in media ethics?

OK, there are a few, first easy and obvious answers. In class discussion, after exhausting all the obvious stuff, I point out that “media” are not conscious beings with a concern for making ethical decisions. In other words, calling it media ethics does not mean we are identifying organizations that make ethical decisions, we are identifying individuals who are a part of media organizations making ethical decisions. 

Light bulbs usually begin to ignite about now because what I’m getting at are the power relationships within organizations and, sometimes, outside of media organizations in the public sphere. Calling it media ethics sounds like there are multiple lists of rules and clearly identifiable norms of behavior floating around out there, and one merely taps in and acts accordingly.

Well, no.

Part of the problem is that decisions about what we ought and ought not do are made by individuals and groups of individuals within larger structures. These larger structures usually hold all the power. The hive mind of those structures would like to keep individuals thinking that ethical decisions within an organizational context are a matter of individual choice.

What this does is lets the organization off the hook when things go wrong, i.e. someone makes a decision deemed unethical, that someone is punished, and the organization is ethically cleansed by punishing the problem person.

For a good example of placing the burden of ethics on individuals, check out the code of ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists. Go to spj.org. You’ll see a link to the code. They’re quite proud of it.

One of the striking features of this otherwise reasonable and rational code of ethics is that it places the ethical burden squarely on the people in the typical news organization with the least power – reporters.

Now for the real-world stuff. One of the reasons I enjoy teaching media ethics is that the media provide a constant source of examples of what to do and not to do. And these situations are gloriously complicated and messy.

Which brings me to Joe Rogan and Spotify.

I’m not going to talk about the specifics of this case. I promised to keep these episodes short. Instead, I’ll give you listeners and my students something to ponder.

First, for a quick overview that treats this situation in something like its proper complexity, check out the column in the New York Times entitled “What the Joe Rogan Situation Reveals About How We Handle Misinformation.” The author is Spencer Bokat-Lindell.

Now consider that I produce this podcast on Anchor – a production app and site that makes producing and publishing podcasts easy. Spotify owns Anchor. So this podcast is carried by Spotify and is also indexed by Google and Apple. Perhaps an important note: I am fully capable of producing, publishing, and syndicating this podcast without using Anchor.

The first question is not: should I stop using Anchor and Spotify? The first question is: Should I take the Rogan situation into account in my choice to produce this podcast with Anchor?

So when next we meet, I’ll have the class start there.

I’ll ask them about my power in this situation.

And, yes, we’ll also discuss what the people with the power at Spotify ought to do regarding the Rogan question.

An important reminder: Ethics is about what we ought and ought not do. Law is about what we can and cannot do. These two things are very different. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

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