Good Business Practices


The publisher of Namibia's German weekly, Plus, told BBC News last Fall that his newspaper erred when it published an advertisement celebrating the death of Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal. The ad, which Hans Feddersen, the paper's publisher, said was placed by the "International Action Against Forgetting," a group he thought was based in Germany, expressed "joy and satisfaction" at Wiesenthal's death. The ad called Wiesenthal a "big monster" and said "the earth and its inhabitants were delivered from Simon." "His biggest crime," it said, "was to live 96 years."


Feddersen continued that although he edited the ad, what was published was "still very disgraceful." "The newspaper distances itself from the content of the advertisement," he said. "I took the ad because of the money," Feddersen continued, and "it was a lot of money."


We should all feel better about that.


Dutch Treatment


The Guardian (U.K.) reported last Fall that a study of Dutch journalists conducted by the University of Nijmegen revealed that two-thirds of stories that were based on leaked information were published without checking their accuracy while knowing that the information often was "unbalanced, incomplete and lacking in detail." The study respondents said they'd checked for accuracy only in 34 percent of the cases.


Reporters and editors from 50 newspapers told researchers they saw nothing ethically wrong with printing leaked information.


But printing unverified information?


So much for the journalistic philosophy of "If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out."


Good News on Good News


The New York Times reported last Fall that the City of Newark, N.J., was paying a free weekly tabloid $100,000 annually to run good news about the city. Visions Metro Weekly (VMW), which claims a circulation of 25,000, is being paid to promote the city's "positive aspects," such as free flu shots, street hockey leagues, etc.


Unlike regular advertisements and advertorials, material paid for by sponsors and set in different type, these stories will be indistinguishable from regular news stories. City Hall is to propose article ideas to the paper, whose staff then will turn them into news stories.


Howard Scott, editor of VMW, defended the practice by saying his newspaper was the only one in Newark to focus on positive, useful news. "My vision is to promote the positive aspects of the communities we cover," he said. Concerning the financial charge to the city, Scott said "It's very expensive to run any operation, and we have business considerations just like anyone else."


VMW's web site says that since 1995 the company has been successful in "bringing 'Positive News For A Change' to the communities we serve." No argument there.


Unfortunate Placement


Last January Reuters reported that the German daily Landeszeitung Lueneburg had a page-long story dedicated to the suffering of Sinti (Gypsy) Germans in Auschwitz. Between 200,000 and 800,000 Sinti and Roma Gypsies were killed by the Nazis in various concentration camps which killed millions of "undesirables" by poison gas during the Third Reich.


Trouble was that about a third of the page was devoted to an advertisement sponsored by the regional utility company E.ON and had the slogan "E.ON is taking care of the gas of tomorrow, today."


The paper received many complaints and apologized "for this mistake, which both contradicts the article's intention of shedding light on an almost forgotten chapter of National Socialism, and also undeservedly casts the utility in questionable light." It said placement of the ad was unintentional and "simply overlooked."


Landeszeitung's editors must have built a huge wall between news and advertising to miss this one.


(Those with long memories may remember a similar faux pas involving a natural gas trade association commercial during the airing of Judgement at Nurenburg, a dramatic account of the Nazi war crimes trials after World War II- but the network edited the word "gas" (as applied to Nazi atrocities) out of the film in time. Whew.)


Woes of Reality TV


The Mexican government early this year admitted that last December's broadcast of a live police raid south of Mexico City was staged for the media, the Guardian (U.K.) reported. The raid depicted a dawn assault on a farm house, the "arrest" of four "kidnappers" and the "liberation" of three "victims."


Reporters followed the policemen and stuck microphones in the faces of those "arrested" and "freed." Televisa, the country's largest network, dismissed the reporter involved, while Television Azteca, the other network involved, said it simply followed a tip. The government recently concluded that the raid was a mistake.


Attorney General Daniel Cabeza de Vaca said "All we tried to do is serve you, the media," and to show the public that "there is an institution that is working for them, that has success and that arrests people."


And, yes, if there is no news, we make news- for you.


Internet Customer Privacy vs. Government


Chinese bloggers using such words as "democracy," "demonstration" and "freedom" found their blogs blocked last year. Additionally, search engine firms such as Google and Microsoft were under increasing Chinese pressure to institute similar restrictions.


Microsoft decided that blogs blocked inside China would be available to readers outside that country. This applies to bloggers who use the MSN Spaces service and only if MSN receives a "legally binding notice" from the government of a nation. Bloggers will be notified when their work is being blocked, MSN said.


Furthermore, Google decided to store Chinese customers' search results outside China, so the company would not be in the "position of having to hand over these kinds of records to the government," Google's research director said.


At the same time, Google was fighting and Microsoft obeying a U. S. government demand for data on the key words and sites involved in a large sample of searches originating in the United States.


It would be interesting to see if the right hand was watching what the left hand was doing.


If You Can't Find It, Make It Up


In Washington State, the State Superintendent of Public Instruction has announced that students taking the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) as a high school graduation requirement may make things up when writing nonfiction, persuasive essays as part of the test.


That's right. A PowerPoint presentation intended for students from the Superintendent's office says, "Statistics in a WASL paper can be made up by you, the writer!" and "On the WASL, you can invent an important expert and have that person say something to bolster your opinion."


It is a fact that the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction is reported as being confident that all students will understand that they can't make up facts at any other time- not just journalism students, who wouldn't dream of inventing "facts," would they?


  • This column is a regular feature in Media Ethics. Readers with verifiable contributions for future issues (all subject to editing), or comments on the entries chosen for this issue, should send them to Manny Paraschos, co Media Ethics.


The above article was published in Media Ethics, Spring 2006 (17:2),pp. 2,29-30.