The Tricky Ethics Of Video In A YouTube Era
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.
Coming up, we continue our series Tell Me Mobile. New research shows minorities are outpacing white users when it comes to handheld devices and those data applications for those devices. Earlier in the week we talked about how this phenomenon might be closing the digital divide, but in a few minutes we'll ask if there is a downside to this. That's in just a few minutes.
But, first, we wanted to talk a bit more about the issues raised by the Shirley Sherrod story. Specifically we wanted to talk about issues of technology and journalism and ethics. Just to recap, in less than 24 hours Shirley Sherrod has gone from being publicly vilified as a racist, pressured to quit her job at the Department of Agriculture to being offered her job back and apologized to, all because of a long speech that was edited and placed on YouTube by a conservative activist with a record of playing a role in provocative media stunts.
We wanted to talk more about what the arc of this story says about the current media environment and specifically what role social media may play in that. So we've called our own Andy Carvin. He's a senior strategist with NPR. He runs our social media desk. He's here with me in our Washington, D.C. studio.
Also with us is Richard Prince. He's a veteran journalist and media critic and author of "Journal-isms." That's an online publication about diversity issues in the media. Welcome to you both.
ANDY CARVIN: Thanks for having me.
Mr. RICHARD PRINCE (Journalist, Media Critic; Author, "Journal-isms"): Thank you.
MARTIN: So, Richard, let me start with you. I want to get a quick reaction from each of you. What do you think this story is about? Howie Kurtz of the Washington Post who covers the media wrote this morning that Shirley Sherrod might be the only official ever dismissed because of the fear of being denounced by Glenn Beck. That's of course the Fox News talk show host who's campaigned against other White House employees and famously called President Obama a racist, which many people think is ridiculous.
But I want to ask you, is this fear of Glenn Beck or is this story about something else?
Mr. PRINCE: Well, one of the things it is about is fear of Glenn Beck and the kind of opinion-mongering that he represents, and the fact that the media and the administration are on the defensive against this kind of thing. I believe that this represents a danger to traditional journalism as, you know, as truth tellers. And that the public needs to instead of cheering Glenn Beck, cheer calls to get to the bottom of things and to tell the truth.
MARTIN: Well, some people might argue that this is a victory for that kind of truth-telling because when the fuller story became clear, this situation was addressed rather quickly. So, Richard, quickly, some people might argue this is an object lesson of the other, which is why traditional media methods, checking context and all that, really do matter and are vindicated.
Mr. PRINCE: That's true, if it had happened earlier. But in the meantime, as I remember that during the Reagan administration, the secretary of Labor, Ray Donovan was a victim of the Abscam case. And he said when it was all over, where do I go to get my reputation back? The vindication didn't happen soon enough. It should've happened before anything ever aired.
MARTIN: Andy Carvin, what about you? Is this about the power of YouTube? I mean this isn't the first video piece that's appeared on YouTube that can cause a significant reaction. Andrew Breitbart, who posted this edited video of Shirley Sherrod, was earlier involved in this other incident where these two activists dressed up as what they said were a pimp and a prostitute in order to discredit the group ACORN. And really did succeed in causing serious damage to that organization. So is this about YouTube or is this about something else?
CARVIN: I think it's less about YouTube because this could've been put on any number of platforms. I think it's more about our collective complacency, that when it was posted, many people jumped on the story and didn't bother to ask questions about its ultimate context. Given the way our 24-hour news cycle works and how social media in some ways speeds it up even more so. We don't always step back to take a moment and think, what exactly is going on here? Is there more to it? Is it solely a two-and-a-half-minute video or was there a larger context in which a greater meeting might be lost in this kind of situation?
MARTIN: And who was it (unintelligible) you're saying, who is it in your view who lacks this context? Is it the I mean when this story was originally picked up by the so-called mainstream media, for example The Washington Post website, or ABC News, at O'Keeffe on his blog, it was after the NAACP had already denounced her. And the Agriculture Department, her employers were already denouncing her.
CARVIN: Well, I think it was a number of players taking place here. NAACP probably should've been a lot faster at getting the full video out or at least putting otu a statement saying there's much more to the situation and as soon as we can post the video we can.
But at the same time, if you are a blogger or working at a news organization and you have this clip and you see that it's fairly tightly edited, even though it has long portions of unedited speech in it. It's still, we're looking at about two minutes of video here. And chances are you could take a guess that her presentation at this event was longer than a two or three minute speech. And so as a reporter, or as an editor, you should still have that healthy skepticism and ask yourself and ask your colleagues what else is going on here?
And so the story had taken on a life of its own because she clearly was in trouble.
MARTIN: Well, they were trying to get ahead of the story. All these institutions were trying to get ahead of the story.
CARVIN: Exactly. Because given how these stories take on a life of their own online and as well on talk radio and other media platforms, sometimes it didn't feel necessary for them to dig a little deeper into what's going on here. And so that opportunity was lost.
MARTIN: And, Andy, I'm going to ask you this and, Richard, I'm going to ask you this to follow up on this. There's a growing discussion within the online community about whether some standards need to be imposed. I mean earlier there had been conversations about sponsorship, like corporate sponsorship, and whether you need to be more transparent about saying that I was given this tube of lipstick before I reviewed it. I'm giving these things for free, things of that sort.
And I wondered, is there any online discussion going on about standards in presenting information along these lines? Because it's very clear that this information, you know, was edited. And clearly Andrew Breitbart didn't seem to feel any responsibility to present the broader context. But he's not a journalist. He's an activist. He's a provocateur. He's advancing a side. Is there any conversation about standards online?
CARVIN: I don't think there's a serious conversation simply because this isn't really that different than if you look at political ads during campaigns where opponents will selectively take bits of information to put their adversary in the worst possible light. It's all rhetorical strategy. That's what's going on here. And it's and when it comes to bloggers, and anyone else online for that matter, this is really a free speech issue. And you have just as much of a right to use rhetorical arguments, even ones that are somewhat questionable to support your own side.
MARTIN: Richard, do you think race plays a role in this? I mean if the subject were something else, not a racially charged conversation, do you think that the same effect would have been had if it was gender or some other topic? What role do you think race plays in the way this whole thing ensued?
Mr. PRINCE: Well, I think race is a big part of this of course. But from the journalism angle I think race and diversity play a role. One of the things that's happening in our media right now is this transformation to the Internet means we're losing a lot of the old veterans who say this just doesn't smell right. You have younger people. You have people who you don't have enough of a diversity of people who can use their own experiences to judge the worth of a story, the truth of a story. If I can just take a point of personal privilege here now. The last time I was...
MARTIN: Briefly, Richard.
Mr. PRINCE: Yeah. The last time I was on here, we were talking about Helen Thomas who was the White House columnist who said Israelis should get the hell out of Palestine. And we were all wondering, how could she say such a thing? And everyone denounced it and said what a shame. Well, after that, I talked with some - her family and some Arab-Americans who said that when she meant she said Palestine, she was not talking about the 1947 Palestine. She was talking about Palestine as it exists now, which is the West Bank and Gaza and the people who are going into those settlements.
Well, that interpretation of what she meant was not transmitted through the media because there are not enough people who have that understanding of where those folks are coming from.
MARTIN: I see.
Mr. PRINCE: And I had the heck of a time trying to get people to even acknowledge that there was another side to this.
MARTIN: I see. We're going to have to leave it there. There's clearly more to talk about, so I thank you for that.
Mr. PRINCE: Oh. That's too bad.
MARTIN: Richard Prince is a veteran journalist and media critic, as we know, time is the one thing they're not making any more of. He's the author of "Journal-isms," that's an online publication about diversity issues in the media. He joined us from member station WETA in Virginia.
Andy Carvin follows all things social media here at NPR. He's our senior strategist. He was here with me in our Washington, D.C. studio. Thank you both.
CARVIN: Thanks again.
Mr. PRINCE: Thank you.