Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Brief #5: Reporter's Privilege

Learning about Reporter's Privilege  and Shield Laws


Some common types and forms of privilege

I'd never heard of Reporter's Privilege, but it's apparently very similar to shield laws. Reporter's Privilege is "the right of a reporter to not testify about confidential information or to reveal his or her source."  There are certain rules or laws in the U.S. that everyone should uphold, including the courts. These are not just based on constitutional law, but on basic human rights. A reporter's right to protect their source is as important as the priest's right to keep the confessional secret, or doctor-patient confidentiality, or lawyer-client confidentiality. These may all differ slightly, but in each case, the professional (in this case, the reporter) must have that legal protection in order to get the information from their informant. Otherwise, many sources would not come forth. They would not be able to trust that the reporter would keep their name private.  News sources must be protected, or else the person leaves him/herself open to reprisal from co-workers, bosses, police, criminals or worse.  The system works because the reporter is able to get the information without revealing who told the information. Without that protection, they would not be able to get the story or tell us the important news. Reporters would be leaving themselves open to prosecution and could incur many legal expenses.   These press freedoms are the cornerstone of our democracy.

Is there need for a reporter's privilege?

Most of the courts in the U.S. have upheld reporter's privilege.  Only the fourth circuit federal court of appeals, which is based in Richmond, VA and covers District of Maryland and the Eastern part of North Carolina, has said that it doesn't exist.  Nonetheless, there are always lawyers, police, government employees and judges seeking to subvert reporter's privilege every week, like this reporter in San DiegoThis happens in other countries all of the time, too.  Last week in Canada, they tested a new law there to protect reporters from revealing their sources.  Many other Western countries besides the U.S. and Canada have shield laws and freedom of expression.  However, these laws have qualifiers and are not absolute, and there is no federal shield law in the U.S.  Those are two of the many reasons that the reporter's privilege and shield laws are always being challenged.   I couldn't find a list of the countries without shield laws, but this list of countries from the World Press Freedom Index helps us determine which countries treat journalists the worst (which probably includes lack of shield laws or reporter's privilege).

cartoon of a judge using his gavel to knock down the reporter's castle

Although reporter's privilege has been around a long time, it's only been addressed by the Supreme Court once, in Branzburg v. HayesThis case in 1972 decided that "in federal courts, a reporter may not generally avoid testifying in a criminal grand jury."  The judges declared that the press did well enough without the constitutional protection. However, they did maintain that the only time a reporter can be compelled to testify is if the testimony is aligned with "overwhelming and compelling state interest."  Many courts have interpreted this to mean that reporter's privilege does exist, except in rare cases. We won't ever have a completely free press until the courts declare that reporter's privilege exists, without exception, or we have a federal shield law. For the most part, it appears that many reporters in the U.S. act as if these things already occur, since they routinely face jail for not revealing their sources. Others are more cautious and do reveal their sources. As I mentioned before, reporters can also face breach of promise law suits if they don't maintain confidentiality.

Lois Lane's speech in 1972 about being a reporter

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Brief #4: Plagiarism

plagiarism word cloud

Many people in this world plagiarize. When we're in school, we're probably all tempted to copy the answers from the smart kids' papers or tests. We're taught by our parents and teachers that copying is bad and dishonest. Many students keep cheating, anyway.  Some people never learn this lesson and carry it on to adulthood.

I was a teacher, briefly from 1989-1991. I taught 6th through 8th grade. The 8th graders cheated way more than the younger grades. They did whatever they could get away with, and they were often caught.  Two students I recall in particular used to copy each other's homework. The trouble was that one of those students was very smart, and the other one was not, so it was pretty obvious, especially when their answers were exactly the same, word-for-word, including misspelled words. I'm sure every teacher and professor has stories like this.  When you're a child, you take risks like that because it's part of pushing the boundaries of authority and finding your place in the world.

Plagiarizers include every type of person from students to professors and teachers; from authors to journalists, to musicians and politicians.  They often get caught, and you can read about the scandals involving that in the news all of the time. It's not shocking any more.

Joe Biden

One of the most famous cases of plagiarism came from Vice President Joe Biden when he was running for president years ago. He made a speech during his campaign that sounded a lot like a speech made by a member of Parliament that same year. Biden claims that he didn't do it on purpose. If you're a very smart person, with a good memory, it's very easy to hear a phrase and then turn around and use it yourself, without even realizing it.  The current first lady, Melania Trump, also was criticized when she made a speech that used a lot of the same phrases as a previous speech given by the former first lady Michelle Obama. Video

Jayson Blair

One of the most famous plagiarism cases was discovered when reporter Jayson Blair of the New York Times resigned in disgrace in 2003 after we learned that he not only plagiarized, but he made up stories.  He wrote a book about it and claimed that he was bipolar. It was mostly shocking because it happened at the New York Times, a well-respected newspaper, and because we weren't used to hearing about these things in the news yet. Video


There are web sites where you can buy papers you haven't written. There is also software, like plagiarism filters, that can help the professors find out if you bought one of these papers.  Students are caught all the time cheating.  Some students just use a fellow student's paper, or one they used in another class, which is also considered cheating. It's much easier for students to plagiarize now because of the internet.  Each university handles punishment for plagiarism differently.  Some students cheat on purpose, whereas others are engaging in accidental plagiarism. Either they're unconsciously using the same phrases (such as Biden claimed), or they don't understand how to quote or attribute correctly.  Consequences of getting caught stealing others' words may include failing the assignment; failing the class; or being kicked out of school entirely. It's never seemed like a worthwhile risk to me. SAU Plagiarism Policy

For journalists or other public figures, it seems even more risky. Before Joe Biden ran for president again, and became vice-president, he was known as "that guy who plagiarized."  He had to work hard to overcome that label. Jayson Blair and many others may never be able to live down the infamy of being fired for their lack of journalistic ethics.


Just recently, scholars have used plagiarism software on Shakespeare's works and found that he may have stolen many of his phrases from an earlier, lesser-known scholar, George North.  If this is true, then perhaps present-day plagiarizers will know they're in good company. If Shakespeare, arguably the world's most famous writer in history, stole from another writer, then no writing can be considered sacred. Shakespeare's writing has been under scrutiny for a very long time.  Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe and Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford were all writers back in Shakespeare's day who scholars considered to possibly be some of the real writers of his works. Not much is known about Shakespeare's early days, and his humble beginnings, which adds to the mystery.  Some contend that Shakespeare was merely influenced by North's work -- that he didn't actually plagiarize.  We'll probably never know for sure. Video


 It hardly matters now whether a writer back in the 16th century wrote his own works or not. He and all of the others are long-dead.  It does matter now if students or journalists plagiarize. If a student buys a paper, then they're getting credit for something they didn't write. You shouldn't get a good grade for work you didn't do. You're not learning that way, and it's not fair to the other students who did work hard.  If a student steals information from a website or book, and they don't attribute their quotes or ideas properly, then they're not learning how to write and quote properly. They could get in more serious trouble later on, as Blair and others have.

Bloom Country comic strip

If a journalist lies or cheats, then their entire work history, and the company they work for, is called into question.  A journalists' ethics are the most important part of their job. When someone reads a newspaper, magazine or website, they expect it to have the truth most of the time.  If that entity hires someone who just made up stories, or steals from someone else, then you won't want to read them again because they're not trustworthy.  If you read the New York Times, you don't expect it to be full of lies like The National Enquirer. The plagiarizer is not just lying but violating the public trust.

What is plagiarism chart

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Brief #3: Advertising Ethics

Controversial Pepsi ad from last year with Kylie Jenner

 Advertising comes in many forms. Sometimes we're not sure whether something is an ad or not.  We're all very familiar with TV commercials, which are the most obvious ads. However, there is also the infomercial, which is a whole program designed to sell you something (and sometimes they can even be entertaining <--Video Link).

Rolex ad in Vanity Fair December, 2017

Magazine and newspaper ads used to be the second most obvious group, but sometimes it's hard to tell, when you're reading a magazine, if the page is an ad or not, such as the Rolex ad above. This ad was also a great commercial during the Oscars last year. Some of the ads are so deceptive that they put "advertising" or "sponsor" in very small letters, and the ad is related to the subject of the magazine. These are called "native ads," and they're very big right now in online ads. Sometimes the magazine ad is even interactive. On the internet, sometimes ads are obvious, and other times they're very deceptive. Most of the time, these ads fall well within the guidelines of legality.

Matthew Lesko

When is an advertisement not ethical? And when is it illegal?  There are some late night commercials that I've seen, that seem like obvious fraud, and I wonder how they get away with it. The worst one, to me, is the money-making books sold by Matthew Lesko. He looks a little bit like the Riddler in these ads (he has question marks all over his suit), and he has a snappy patter. Video Link (I used to get him mixed up with Mr. Six from the Magic Mountain commercials. <--Video Link) Lesko is selling books that he swears will help you get free money from the government. I've always wondered why that's not fraud. Apparently he was investigated in 2005, but not prosecuted. He gets away with it because these are free government grants that are real, even though the people who buy the books may not be eligible for the grants. To me it's disgusting to try to sell something useless to people who are obviously desperate for money. Whether it's technically legal or not, it's definitely not ethical.

MLM chart

We all know that pyramid schemes are illegal, but there is something called Multileval Marketing (MLM) that is similar, and it's technically legal. Examples of MLM include Amway, Avon, Herbalife, LulaRoe, ItWorks, and Mary Kay.  The problem with MLM is that most people don't make much money on them.  They are lured in to sell the products, but only the people at the top make very much money. The FTC warns people away from them, yet the government still allows them to continue. Video Link

I've bought Avon products many times. I have an online friend who sells them. She does make some money, but not all that much, and she is always doing something else to try to make more money. Like most scams, these companies prey on the poor, the gullible, and elderly.

 Funny ad

Website or online advertising has been around a long time. At first, website ads were static banners, but then they quickly became moving, or flashing (animated GIFs), and everyone hated them. They were annoying and distracting. It's all been downhill from there.  Everyone hates ads, yet companies make money on them.  Not all companies make money, and very few keep making lots of money with them.  For one thing, consumers have learned to ignore internet ads, or block them.  In response, the ads get more and more intrusive. I learned last semester that Millennials love sites with animated GIFS and videos the most. I think we know why. They grew up watching all of these constant ads!  The rest of us find those things annoying, unless we're specifically looking for them. (That's probably why younger people like them - anything to annoy the older generation).

popup-ad satire

I've had ads on my site since the 90's. They used to pay pretty well, but they don't pay as well as they used to. Advertisers got wiser about how they spend their advertising money, no doubt.  There are also a lot more websites than there used to be, which means more competition for everyone.  My site used to make a lot of money on popunder ads.  Now if I try to put up a new popup or popounder ad, Twitter puts me in Twitter Jail, or Google blocks me from linking to my site or sends me a stern warning (or both).  Only certain ads are allowed now if you don't want to anger these companies.  The ads can't be too deceptive or else Google Ads will tell you that you can't host their ads.  People say that popups are on their way out, yet I see more of them than ever, especially the kind that seem to work despite my popup blockers.  I go to a site like Buzzfeed and wonder how anyone can stand it because it appears to be nothing but ads. Some of the sites have ads that are in the way and you have to click on an X (or sometimes multiple X's in one page) to get rid of the ad (or video ad) so you can see the text.  The reasons behind having such intrusive ads are sound: in order to get users to click on the ads, you really have to grab their attention, or you have to make them click on them accidentally. Either way means you get paid.  Unless or until they come up with a better way to make money on the internet (for those of us who have content but don't sell a product), this will continue.

 Direct Marketing chart

Another type of advertising is called direct marketing.  Direct marketing is frequently called spam.  You have regular "junk mail" that is often direct marketing, and then you have the spam emails, of course. Spam is also known as unsolicited bulk email (UBE), junk mail, or unsolicited commercial email (UCE). That description, to me, is kind of amusing, because does anyone really want or ask for commercial emails? No, I don't think so. It's all "unsolicited." And lastly, you have the annoying phone calls (telemarketers or robocalls).  I get a lot of these on both my landline and my smartphone.  It's gotten so bad that I rarely answer my phone unless I know the person calling.  Everyone hates these, but again, they do make money.  Besides the legal direct marketing, there are also many scam artists, liars, con men and frauds that pretend to be direct marketers but are really out to steal from you, like the old Nigerian Prince who wants you to send him money.

Nigerian Prince comic strip joke

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Brief 2: Supermarket Tabloids

 Some of the tabloids

I've always believed that the worst national U.S. tabloids are Star, the National Enquirer, and Globe (the very worst used to be Weekly World News, before it folded in 2007 because, as Wikipedia says, it was "largely fictional". It was brought back as a website-only tabloid). There are some popular online tabloids such as TMZ, glossy magazine tabloids such as People or OK!, local tabloids such as The NY Daily News, or UK tabloids such as The Sun and Daily Mail.  There are tabloid TV shows such as Inside Edition and Entertainment Tonight. One might even argue that the entire E! Network is a tabloid (and much of Bravo).  I'm just going to focus on the current U.S. newspaper tabloids.

 National Enquirer cover

Over the years, the National Enquirer had some real stories that sounded sensational but turned out to be true, such as Gary Hart's affairs and Bob Dole's drug use. The bulk of their stories, however, focus on dubious rumors and scandals.  STAR is very similar to the Enquirer; it was founded by mogul Rupert Murdoch to rival the Enquirer, but now it's owned by the same company, American Media. STAR focuses more on celebrities than National Enquirer.  Globe is also owned by American Media. They also owned the tabloids SUN and Weekly World News. STAR has the most circulation of all of the tabloids, followed by the Enquirer. They now also own the glossy tabloid US Weekly and the small glossy magazine Soap Opera Digest (which I've subscribed to since the 1980's), along with many lifestyle and fitness magazines.

According to Wikipedia, "Tabloid journalism is a style of journalism that emphasizes sensational crime stories, gossip columns about celebrities and sports stars, junk food news and astrology." The National Enquirer is the oldest one, having been founded in 1926. Unlike the mainstream press, they pay sources for tips. It's still a newspaper tabloid, not a glossy publication, which has hurt its circulation. Glossy magazines like People and OK! are more popular (Perhaps this is why STAR Magazine went glossy in the early part of this century). The Enquirer started out as a right-wing newspaper in New York, but it became a sensationalist tabloid in the 1950's. It went national in 1957 and focused on national celebrities and gory scandals, increasing the circulation. They started selling it in supermarkets in the 1960's, dropping the gory stories and broadening the appeal to focus more on celebrities, the occult and UFOs. David J. Pecker, Chairman and CEO of American Media, is a good friend of Donald Trump. The Enquirer is very favorable to Trump, and the Enquirer readers are fans of Trump.  The tabloid is not too kind to people viewed as Trump's enemies.

All of the tabloids have been sued quite a few times for their stories.  As I learned last semester in my class, Introduction to Mass Media, in the book "Media Impact: An Introduction to Mass Media" by Shirley Biagi (Chapter 14), libel lawsuits are very difficult to win.  The tabloids spend a lot of money on fighting them. Even if the celebrity wins, they rarely get much money from it because the appeals courts bring down their settlements later on.  All of these tabloids spread a lot of gossip and rumors about celebrities. In short, they make up a lot of stories. Even so, ever since Carol Burnett won her libel suit against the National Enquirer in the 1980's, American Media has lawyers working in their offices that look over every story before it's published (which is not the case with regular newspapers and magazines). They find ways to get around the libel laws.

Personally, I'm too busy to read about celebrities, in general, but I especially detest tabloids because they're generally not true. I don't know why I would bother to read something that's probably fake. To me, it's just a waste of time. It's trash. I think a lot of people believe that they're trash, but some people enjoy reading it, nonetheless. I would rather watch or read a good piece of fiction that's well-written and has good acting, than waste my time on either tabloids or reality shows. I like a lot of celebrities, but I want to see their work, not read about their personal lives.

The Yellow Kid

Tabloid journalism is also called "yellow journalism" (after the old comic strip "The Yellow Kid" that was published in tabloid newspapers in the 1800's). Globe always seems (to me) to be the meanest of the tabloids when it discusses celebrities. They focus on who's ill, or outing who might be gay. They also use the most unflattering photos they can find. This very long article tells what it's like to write for Globe. It sounds like they all just try to find some way to write about celebrities, to keep their jobs. They dig up a lot of dirt on the celebrities in whatever way they can.

Globe cover

According to a former reporter for The National Enquirer, each of the American Media tabloids has its own audience. STAR is aimed at young women in their 20's. The Enquirer's audience is made up of older people with money who like politics. The National Examiner (another of their tabloids) and Globe "are geared to middle-aged conservative women." The Examiner's cover looks much like the other tabloids, with mostly photos, and sensational headlines. It's for older people, so a lot of the stories focus on long-dead celebrities and scandals, like Elvis, Marilyn and JFK. Unlike the other tabloids, it has no website. It's also the least expensive and smallest of all of the tabloids.  These facts tell me that its audience is probably poor and lower-middle-class older people.

The tabloids do make up some stories, but the rest they get from other publications. They spend a lot of time reading other newspapers, magazines and websites to get information. They pursue celebrity stories doggedly, just as the Washington Post or New York Times do their more important stories.  After they're written, and examined by lawyers, they're edited and re-examined several times before publication. A lot of work goes into this successful business. Although magazines and newspapers don't sell the way they used to, American Media's tabloids and men's health magazine still sell well (probably due to their supermarket placement) with over 2 million readers, and over 350 million monthly pageviews on their websites.

The public loves to read sensational stories about the rich and famous. Much like reality shows, they offer an exaggerated glimpse of exciting lives not their own.  They get to see drama, and secrets, without a lot of effort. People always love gossip, drama and scandal, which makes sense, when you think about the fact that all stories (whether we're talking about books, plays, movies, TV et al.) are centered around a conflict of some sort.  Fiction is one thing.  We're taught that lying and exaggerating are sins when we're small children; mass media classes teach us about ethics in journalism.  Yet the tabloids get away with making up and sensationalizing stories. This Op-ed piece in the New York Times thinks that the tabloids serve some usefulness.  In short, "They exist to break down the barriers of access that keep social elites at a remove from ordinary people."

Psychologists have studied the tabloids and theorized that people enjoy them for these reasons. 1) Survival Instincts (we're fascinated by horror because we want to make sure that we're safe from them); 2) Respect to Hierarchy (We're obsessed with celebrities because we want to be more like them and move up the social ladder); 3) Shattering our Ideals (we have a rosy view of the world, so we're drawn to shocking news that grabs our attention; or 4) A Threat to Democracy (horrifying news stories may challenge our sense of democracy). They may be over-thinking this. I think that it's just the drama that entertains the readers. It's what makes shows like "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" and "Criminal Minds" attractive to some viewers. Why do we like sordid or lurid stories? Probably because we all have violent and aggressive thoughts, but we don't act on them. We watch or read stories like this instead of acting on them. Tabloids do their best to fill that need, and they rake in the money for their stories.