Matt Rourke/Associated Press
Subramaniam Vincent is the director of Journalism & Media Ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. He tweets from @subbuvincent and views are his own.
Two weeks ago, Palmer Haasch, digital culture reporter at Insider.com, sent me a series of questions about ethical concerns over the media coverage of Claudia Conway, Kellyanne Conway’s teenage daughter. Claudia Conway, 15, had struck out critically at the news media, in particular, stating that coverage is detrimental to her mental health.
Haasch asked me whether journalists must carve out a distinction around which aspects of Conway’s social media presence media organizations could cover. “Should journalists be covering Claudia Conway at all?” she asked. I sent her my views and also a bigger-picture note with my analysis of the situation.
First, here is Haasch’s piece. It’s a good read.
The Big Picture
Journalism is in competition with social media over relevance. At the same time, social media offers a free supply of quotes, audio-visuals, and popularity indicators. Journalists feel compelled to utilize this to break stories rapidly in a competitive news environment. But why the compulsion? News values.
Journalism scholars use "news values" to describe the approach editors and reporters wield to determine newsworthiness and countless coverage decisions. My preferred reference is Tony Harcup and Deirdre O’Neill’s 2016 Journalism Studies paper, “What is News? News Values Revisited (Again).” Harcup and O’Neill suggested a contemporary list of news values to explain mainstream journalism coverage in the era of social media. News values “inform the mediated world that is presented to news audiences, providing a shared shorthand operational understanding of what working journalists are required to produce on deadline. It’s the way news values work in practice that results in them being articulated and conveyed to new journalism trainees and journalism students, and they are also used by public relations professionals and others aiming to obtain maximum news coverage of events (or pseudo-events),” they wrote in their paper.
I applied this list to the Claudia Conway situation and to respond to Haasch’s queries.
First, an unbelievable and unethical cocktail of news values are drawing the media to cover her: Conflict, Audio-visuals, Shareability, Drama, The Power Elite, Magnitude, and Celebrity. Conflict in the family, her posting of audio-visuals on TikTok non-stop, the intrinsic shareability of her content already validated by her having 1 million followers, dramatic moments in the videos, her being the daughter of KC, and the magnitude of worry about the Trump administration makes her communications a minefield for clues reporters seek. In line with this, a number of things are at play here at the same time.
1. The ethics of consent and a child's right to privacy. Given the junior Conway is 15, both she and her parents need to give consent for journalistic media coverage. This has mostly been undermined here. The problem with the journalistic media's ethics-of-consent code (across U.S., U.K., and other democracies) is that it always tended to guide decisions in situations where it’s the news media that provides the main exposure itself, i.e., the era where newsrooms were gatekeepers too. During that era, the burden of "harm from exposure of a child to the public eye" was borne exclusively by the journalistic media. But that was all pre-Internet and pre-social media.
2. Journalists need to be acutely cognizant of the difference between a social media spectacle, where Claudia drives her own narrative, and journalistic news/elevation. Journalists need to determine if it’s in the public interest to "cover" Claudia Conway—if it’s relevant. If so, get consent, interview her and her parents, and then run the story. It looks like this was done a few times.
We're now in a digital culture situation where the subject herself has created exposure to her million followers. She talks to them directly, and what she says there and who she is, has also made it a spectacle. The media did not create that. This is making it easier for journalists to undermine the ethics of consent because journalists feel like "it's already 'public." Let's just go with it and break shareable and clickable stories. Ethics is being deprioritized in the race to break more and more navel-gazing stories of a social media spectacle.
All other forms of media coverage where she is being made the topic of news stories by simply "fitting" or utilizing her freely-available quotes, videos, and utterances into a reporter's own narrative (as opposed to hers) is simply turning a social media spectacle into a public one and bringing the kind of attention to her through characterizations and commentary, that she did not herself create. This is where the harm to her has happened, as she herself says. Incessant journalism about her has made her social media expression—which includes a combination of teenage rebellion, deep sensitivity, thoughtfulness, and impulsiveness—into a legitimate public event when it really isn’t. She’s 15.
3. The liberal-valued media is also more interested in her because she is anti-Trump and a daughter of KC, a top White House official. Journalists are desperate to see if she will leak something that corroborates or overturns something they may be pursuing.
A. Explicit consent is still key.
Without explicit consent from Claudia Conway and her parents, to talk to her and cite or quote her, coverage of her that involves characterizations and commentary is unethical. That is not to say that interviewing her parents about her and asking them about her posts is not on. That is very much on because they are adults and KC, in particular, is a public figure.
B. Draw a distinction on which topics, why, and how you will treat her as a source
Tons of 15-year old girls and boys are posting about public issues like Black Lives Matter. Claudia Conway’s posting about BLM is no more newsworthy than any other kid’s post. Merely because she is ideologically on the opposite side of her mother and who her mother is, is making journalists feel that the public will see it as "spicy" or "dramatic" or "controversial," so let's cover it.
When she posts about her mother's COVID-19 test going positive, the subject matter is newsworthy. But even there, she need not be quoted or her video need not used.
She does not need to be "covered" for it. Journalists know how to handle people who have such privileged access to people in power who themselves do not ethically warrant coverage. She could be treated as a background source (even though she posted that development to her followers) and the media can simply corroborate with her mother directly. Then let her mother's confirmation drive the story.
C. Frame specific inquiries around relevance to the public
I would recommend journalists frame specific inquiries around relevance to the public, and that needs her views. Ask yourself, why are her views even needed? She is 15. If not for who she was, would we want to make her the topic of a story? There will always be challenges with parenting, rebellion, positions on issues, conflict, etc. For instance, her posts do give a window into one teenager's journey. She is frustrated about her parents' lifestyle, jobs, etc. Let's say a reporter was doing a story about teenagers in the U.S. around different angles like busy parents, political figures, or fierce expression on issues. The reporter would then have to get consent from all the teens and parents and develop an authentic story that the public can learn something from that is NOT ALREADY there on social media.
Be intentional about the word ‘coverage’
The news media is becoming casual and even cavalier with the word “coverage.” Coverage of Claudia Conway, and people in her shoes, must be an exception and not the rule. It must follow the ethics of consent, respect, privacy and dignity. I would not treat her as a public figure by leveraging her expression as stories for shareability.
- The media needs to be stopped, Claudia Conway
- Claudia Conway TikToks: covering daughter of Kellyanne sparks debate
- What is News? News Values Revisited (Again)
- List of News Values proposed (as an empirically observed phenomenon) in the paper in reference #2.
- Exclusivity: Stories generated by, or available first to, the news organization as a result of interviews, letters, investigations, surveys, polls, and so on.
- Bad news: Stories with particularly negative overtones such as death, injury, defeat and loss (of a job, for example).
- Conflict: Stories concerning conflict such as controversies, arguments, splits, strikes, fights, insurrections and warfare.
- Surprise: Stories that have an element of surprise, contrast and/or the unusual about them.
- Audio-visuals: Stories that have arresting photographs, video, audio and/or which can be illustrated with infographics.
- Shareability: Stories that are thought likely to generate sharing and comments via Facebook, Twitter and other forms of social media.
- Entertainment: Soft stories concerning sex, showbusiness, sport, lighter human interest, animals, or offering opportunities for humorous treatment, witty headlines or lists.
- Drama: Stories concerning an unfolding drama such as escapes, accidents, searches, sieges, rescues, battles or court cases.
- Follow-up: Stories about subjects already in the news.
- The power elite: Stories concerning powerful individuals, organizations, institutions, or corporations.
- Relevance: Stories about groups or nations perceived to be influential with, or culturally or historically familiar to, the audience.
- Magnitude: Stories perceived as sufficiently significant in the large numbers of people involved or in potential impact, or involving a degree of extreme behavior or extreme occurrence.
- Celebrity: Stories concerning people who are already famous.
- Good news: Stories with particularly positive overtones such as recoveries, breakthroughs, cures, wins and celebrations.
- News organization’s agenda: Stories that set or fit the news organization’s own agenda, whether ideological, commercial or as part of a specific campaign.