Dan Snow left Santa Clara University ready to get into the news business. Television news had been receiving high viewership and he felt he could really make a difference in the industry. After five years in a mid market, he went to work in a top 25 city as a TV reporter. But he quickly realized that the industry wasn't as spectacular as he once thought. With sometimes only 20 seconds to tell a story, it was nearly impossible to include all the relevant information-choosing what information was relevant became a highly contentious matter. Plus, he worked in a huge media conglomerate so he was working under a plethora of influences.
A few years after Dan began working at the station, the executive producer asked him to do a story on a new technology that was picked up by one of the popular social networking websites. This new technology allowed the website to match up profiles posted on the website with offline profiles of convicted sex offenders. If a match was found between a profile and a sex offender, the profile would be taken down.
Dan was intrigued by this new technology and felt that it could help protect thousands of people on the relatively unsecured Internet. Though there seemed to be nothing wrong with the technology, Dan's executive producer insisted that he include a clip that said the new technology didn't use facial recognition-the technology, instead, only relied on the name provided by the person posting a profile. As a result, the technology couldn 't filter out people lying about their names.
Dan was confused with his boss's orders because he found very little, if any, criticism of the product from his own reporting. After looking further into his boss's idea, Dan discovered that the criticism came from above his boss and from someone in the huge, multi-media company whose own technology hadn't been picked by the social networking website.
"They wanted to create more controversy," said Dan. "They wanted people to know that it wasn't a perfect system." Dan felt that if the lack of facial recognition was the criticism, there were other, better ways of portraying it, rather than broadcasting a reporter offering the criticism as an unattributed observation. His story needed to establish the conflict in a more objective fashion.
"We could have quoted a child care advocate, describing the need for facial recognition," said Dan. "But because I was so low in the company, the executives didn't care to hear my opinion. You have to pick your battles."
Dan's piece aired as the executives ordered it, but Dan was left thinking about the ethical implications of the situation.
- What are the consequences of Dan airing the piece as requested?
- Was Dan justified in objecting to the inclusion of the criticism of the technology as an unattributed observation? Why or why not?
- What, if any, obligation does Dan have to the viewer?
- Do you think ownership of media by large conglomerates has led to better or worse journalism?
- As a consumer of television news, do stories seem reliable? Truthful? Can they be trusted?
Jessica Silliman was a 2006-07 Hackworth Fellow at The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.