I wrote this piece for a class I took back in 2015. Although my initial response has fallen away from how I felt while writing this essay, I consider what sounds occur in a sea shell, and how things pull away from the original sound once you realize the ear takes in electrical current and, if this does not occur, not sound has been made in the first place.
Most people love to hear a good story. Nowadays, if one listens to something on the radio, the expectation is the news is correct. The sources have been verified. The truths have been fact-checked. Many people listen and take it to heart, or not. If you ignore the news, maybe it’s as good as if you nominally put faith in journalistic integrity or blindly believe everything you hear. Sometimes when one hears a story, he simply nods his head in compliance; in one ear and out the other. If he’s listened or not, he would believe the message.
Despite all the best intentions, the media is flawed. There are codes of ethics boards in every news circuit who commit to unrelenting honesty, integrity, and independence; and at the same time commit to do no harm to its people; and yet there are retraction departments whose job it is to correct past news with fact restoration. When I think about journalistic errors, I recall an episode in season one of the TV show Arrested Development. Michael Cera’s character, George Michael, says of print media, “OK, they printed a retraction in the spring supplement” (Hurwitz and Rosenstock). The media is flawed, and it every so often breaks its own codes of ethics to maintain ratings and to stay in business. Confounding variables, including pseudoscience and irresponsible journalism, are in direct conflict with the media’s duty of care for its audience.
Duty of care is “an obligation to prevent danger or imminent threat through omission or skewing of facts” (Puttman). As a recent Ted Talk shows, the story of the Paisley snail stems from a court case involving a woman suffering from gastroenteritis and shock after finding a snail in a bottle of ginger beer she was drinking. The resulting case of Donoghue vs. Stevenson found that the manufacturer of ginger beer had a duty of care for May Donoghue. The judge on the case explained, “You must take care to avoid acts or omissions which you can reasonably foresee would be likely to injure your neighbor” (Puttnam). The case set a legal precedent, as May had not purchased the drink from the manufacturer, and there was no contract between them.
In the case of the media, duty of care is important. In an episode of On The Media, Bob Garfield outlines “A Dangerous View“, about the newest addition to the all-female ABC TV show The View. A statement published by the TV network heralds Jenny McCarthy’s impact, who will discuss her “parenting beliefs”, among them an anti-vaccine regimen that prevents autism (Garfield). McCarthy will disseminate her beliefs, founded on a long-discredited study that says autism is caused by vaccines.
The study that connects autism to vaccines is part of a 1998 study of 12 kids by Andrew Wakefield, a doctor who was paid by lawyers to sue the vaccine manufacturer. The co-authors were unaware of the conflicting interest, and as a result the doctor lost his medical license and the study was retracted (Garfield). As a result, anti-vaccine regimens once considered fringe will be considered by millions of viewers. Celebrities can be very influential, even on issues where they are not well-informed, but what happens when mass media appoints them as spokespeople for advertising incorrect information? What is the impact of the population?
In an interview with Oprah, Jenny McCarthy explains how she came upon her beliefs. She googled vaccines, and the first hit was autism (Garfield). McCarthy actually continues. “The University of Google is where I got my degree from” (Garfield).
Problem is, the University Google sucks, because anyone can teach there, no matter how dishonest, how superstitious, how ignorant. On the University of Google, you can also learn about how the US government blew up the World Trade Center, how crystals magically heal, how Jews kill Gentile infants for their blood and how easy it is to get rich in real estate. (Garfield)
Media’s beacon of bad science has created increasing numbers of non-vaccinated herds of children who, in recent years, have contributed to outbreaks of diseases that fifty years ago were considered all but eradicated by vaccine: measles, mumps, and pertussis (whooping cough). “In 2010, a whooping cough outbreak in California sickened 9,120 people, more than in any year since 1947. Ten infants died; babies are too young to be vaccinated” (Shute). As of January 25, 2015,
nearly 80 people in the United States are now confirmed to have measles, most of them with confirmed links to the outbreak that started at Disneyland and Disney’s California Adventure Park. The California Department of Public Health was able to find vaccination records for some of the infected. They found that at least 28 had not received the measles vaccine. (Rath)
Some of the public health policies that had long been upheld are being eroded, and the contribution of pseudo-science in news shows how the media’s fundamental lack of duty of care has set public health back decades.
Another example of media’s negligent duty of care comes from a New York based newspaper called the Journal News. Their article published:
the names and addresses of all legal gun-permit owners in the region. The backlash was swift, prompting unified outcries for the paper to take down the locations from their online affiliate site, lohud.com. Critics claimed it would enable criminals to more easily identify which homes to break in to, putting many residents in serious danger. In response to the public reaction, the Journal News not only said that they would not take down the current list, but would seek to add to it. The Journal News abdicated responsibility for any wrongdoing in their aggregation of personal information, declaring that it was all available through Freedom of Information requests. (Jacoutot)
The author of the article, clamoring for justification, cited his own freedom of information request, but he failed to take into account that the people whom he sought to incriminate, gun owners, were in fact the safest of the population. Ironically, the most at-risk were the people who were not on the gun ownership list. As a direct result of this article, NY-SAFE was passed, providing exemptions for gun owners’ name and address information being posted to public databases (Worley). In the media’s recklessness, laws will be passed to protect a democracy.
The media’s lack of care can pose a threat to those who have been exonerated in court, but who are vilified in public opinion. When the protests over the Darren Wilson verdict were at their peak, authors of the New York Times published an article including the town and street address names of Darren Wilson, the officer who killed an unarmed citizen, Michael Brown. The protests, resulting in cars being burned out and flipped, looting, and a mass exodus of people through the streets of major U.S. cities, reminded me of the pitchforks and torches scene from the film Frankenstein.
The media’s purposefully harmful dissemination of information and direction from these protestors is a dangerous combination. Breitbart’s John Nolte writes, ‘the New York Times had no qualms whatsoever about publishing almost all the information needed for Officer Darren Wilson’s enemies to track him and his wife down at home.’ Other outlets, including the New York Post and Fox News, have highlighted the newspaper’s decision. ‘If anything happens to that man, his family or that home, I hold them — the culpability is with [the New York Times],’ said Fox News’ Sean Hannity. (Wemple)
For the initial research of this essay, I had planned on outlining a detailed analysis of journalists’ code of ethics. The more I looked, the more in common much of the core values seemed, so I decided to rest on one. The Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics is simple. Their motto: “improving and protecting journalism since 1909. Seek truth and report it.
Minimize Harm. Act Independently. Be accountable and transparent” (SJP). The exacting detail was in the disclaimer. “The code should be read as a whole; individual principles should not be taken out of context. It is not, nor can it be under the First Amendment, legally enforceable” (SJP). I looked around for an ideal model for media integrity and code of ethics and I found the resting place: the First Amendment.
A fact I so often forget about the media is they are just like you and me. In the words of Charleton Heston as shown in the movie Soylent Green, “it’s people.” If I hadn’t the mind to see them as more than a group, a conglomerate comprised of headlines, the truth is perhaps more difficult to see. In all its glory, the media is just people, flawed as we are, biased as the red running through our veins. The media has every right to speak its mind as you or I, without fear of retribution. I am reminded of a scene from season two of the TV show Arrested Development. In the words of Buster Bluth, “I don’t agree with your dirty doings here, but I will defend with my life your right to do it” (Hurwitcz and Vallely).
Garfield, Bob. “A dangerous view.” Onthemedia.org. 19 July 2013. 23 January 2015. WNYC. http://www.onthemedia.org/story/307721-dangerous-view/
Hurwitz, Mitchell and Rosenstock, Richard. “The One Where Michael Leaves.” Wikia.com. Wikia Entertainment. 24 January 2015. http://arresteddevelopment.wikia.com/wiki/Transcript_of_The_One_Where_Michael_Leaves
Hurwitz, Mitchell and Vallely, Jim. “Transcript of The One Where They Build a House.” Wikia.com. Wikia Entertainment. 24 January 2015. http://arresteddevelopment.wikia.com/wiki/Transcript_of_The_One_Where_They_Build_a_House
Jacoutot, Bryan. “Negative consequences of NY newspaper’s bad journalism continue to mount.” Legalinsurrection.com. Legal Insurrection, 5 January 2013. 23 January 2015. http://legalinsurrection.com/2013/01/negative-consequences-of-ny-newspapers-bad-journalism-continue-to-mount/
Puttnam, David. “Does the media have a ‘duty of care’?” TED.com. TED, June 2013. 22 January 2015. https://www.ted.com/talks/david_puttnam_what_happens_when_the_media_s_priority_is_profit?language=enLecture
Rath, Arun. “Measles Outbreak Linked To Disneyland hits Over 70 Cases.” NPR.org. NPR, 24 January 2015. 24 January 2015.
Shute, Nancy. “Vaccine refusals fueled California’s whooping cough epidemic.” NPR.org. NPR, 23 September 2013. 22 January 2015. http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2013/09/25/226147147/vaccine-refusals-fueled-californias-whooping-cough-epidemic
SPJ. “Code of Ethics.” SPJ.org. Society of Professional Journalists, 6 September 2014. 22 January 2015. http://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp
Wemple, Erik. “New York Times responds to criticism about Darren Wilson’s address.” Washingtonpost.com. Washington Post, 26 November, 2014. 23 January 2015. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/erik-wemple/wp/2014/11/26/new-york-times-responds-to-criticism-about-darren-wilsons-address/
Worley, Dwight R. “SAFE Act: Gun permit records sealed by the thousands in N.Y.” Lohud.com. Lohud, 30 August 2014. 24 January 2015. http://www.lohud.com/story/news/local/2014/08/30/pistol-permits-ny-safe-opt-outs-public-records-county-clerks/14891475/