Deceptive Editing and the Media

Class: Media Ethics

Date: May 6, 2011

Selective editing is a part of the journalism process. While reporting a story, journalists choose what to will go into a piece and what ends up on the cutting room floor. There is never enough time, space or even need for every piece of information. Deceptive editing is different. Deceptive editing is choosing the most damning pieces of information, editing that information to obscure the truth and releasing it to the world. There have been three key examples of deceptive editing that have grown to be media firestorms since 2009; statements made by then-Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, James O’Keefe’s ACORN sting videos and, most recently, the forced resignation of Shirley Sherrod. In all three cases, the media was quick to wade into the controversies. However, the lack of fact checking and confirming of sources presents a serious ethical issue. There is a difference between reporting information and repeating lies, and in all three situations, the media did the latter. The media has an ethical obligation to report the truth as accurately as possible. Instead, it has been duped by amateurs with political agendas.

The Sonia Sotomayor controversy began when Justice David Souter first announced his retirement from the bench in May of 2009. Shortly after the announcement, speculation began on who would replace the outgoing justice. Sotomayor’s name came up in the conversation. Conservative blogger Morgen Richmond began searching for information on Sotomayor once he heard her name mentioned. In his research, Richmond uncovered a panel in where Sotomayor said,

“The saw is that if you’re going into academia, you’re going to teach, or as Judge Lucero just said, public interest law, all of the legal defense funds out there, they’re looking for people with court of appeals experience, because it is — court of appeals is where policy is made. And I know — and I know this is on tape and I should never say that because we don’t make law, I know. OK, I know. I’m not promoting it, and I’m not advocating it, I’m — you know.”

To Richmond, Sotomayor seemed to be advocating legislating from the bench, a Conservative catch phrase for what so-called activist judges do. He clipped the quote from the video, put it on YouTube and posted on his blog, VerumSerum.com, about it . When President Barack Obama announced that Sotomayor was going to be his nominee to replace Justice Souter, the cable news networks immediate began reporting on her biography, her credentials and the above quote.

In September of 2009, James O’Keefe and Hannah Giles visited eight ACORN offices around the country. Equipped with hidden cameras and recording devices, O’Keefe and Giles entered the offices telling employees that Giles was a prostitute and the two claimed to be looking to open a brothel with underage El Salvadorian girls. In San Diego, California, Giles and O’Keefe met with Juan Carlos Vera,  a community organizer. Giles and O’Keefe spun a tale about trafficking young girls across the Mexican border. Vera seemed very interested in the two and offered his assistance. A few days later, an edited video of the encounter appeared on Andrew Breitbart’s website, BigGovernment.com, and YouTube exposing corruption and criminal activity in the organization. Again, the media, beginning with Fox News, jumped on the ACORN story. O’Keefe and Giles were exalted for their efforts and the House of Representatives voted to defund the organization of federal money. The Senate quickly followed suit.

And in the lead up to the 2010 midterm elections, the NAACP called upon the Tea Party to condemn parts of their organization who carried racist signs to rallies across the country. Shortly after, Andrew Breitbart posted a video on his website showing a federal employee, Shirley Sherrod, at an NAACP banquet. In the video, Sherrod, a black woman, explains how she did not help a white farmer as much as she could have because of his race. After the blogosphere picks up the story, FoxNews.com posts an article about the video. On his primetime television show, Bill O’Reilly aired the video. By the end of the first day of the controversy, Sherrod had resigned from her position with the Agriculture Department.

In all three cases, the media took each video at face value without researching the source of the video or attempting to uncover the true story. In the case of Sotomayor’s statements, context is everything. Sotomayor made her comments while answering a question about the difference between clerking at different levels of the court. Her remark that policy was made in the appeals court is true. Decisions in the court of appeals establish precedents that affect how laws are translated going forward.

The ACORN sting videos were also heavily edited. Then-California Attorney General Jerry Brown was asked to look into the incidents that took place in California ACORN offices. In exchange for immunity, Giles and O’Keefe handed over the unedited tapes to the Attorney General. The raw tapes, along with other evidence uncovered over the course of the investigation, told a very different story. In the encounter with Vera, the videos showed the ACORN employee asking a lot of questions, collecting as much information as possible, including Giles and O’Keefe’s contact information. After the pair left his office, Vera immediately called a detective at the National City police department explaining that an admitted prostitute had just come to his office seeking help in human trafficking. The videos also make clear how elaborate and, at times, ridiculous the tale weaved by Giles and O’Keefe was. One employee, who says she figured out that it was a joke (though not realizing she was being recorded) talks about being a prostitute herself and claims she killed her husband. Brown’s investigation found no evidence of either claim. Another employee tried to bring Giles to the office for victims of violence to receive counseling. All the employees in the videos lost their jobs.

The Shirley Sherrod incident is probably the most troubling of the three. The video posted by Breitbart was so damning that the NAACP, the host of the event she was speaking at, came out condemning her remarks soon after they were released. The White House and Secretary of Agriculture also released statements, saying the remarks were unacceptable. The incident happened so fast that Sherrod didn’t have time to defend herself before she was forced to resign. It was not until the next morning, on CNN, that Sherrod had the opportunity to explain her side of the story. Again, video showed her comments completely without context. Sherrod explained that her story was about her realization that part of her job was to transcend race issues. The white farmers she referenced also came to her defense, saying that Sherrod had helped them save their farm. The full video of the event was eventually released and the NAACP, the White House and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack all walked back their condemnation of Sherrod and ultimately apologized. Even members of the media who had vehemently condemned Sherrod a day before, including O’Reilly, apologized to her on-air. For his part, Breitbart did not apologize and said that he had only received the edited portion of the video from an unnamed source.

There is no ethically dilemma regarding the practice of deceptive editing. Ethically, it is wrong. It goes against many of the codes of ethics written for journalists, including the Society of Professional Journalists code, which states that journalists should seek “truth” and provide a “fair and comprehensive account of events and issues.” None of the videos show the truth. Instead, they deceive. None of the videos are fair or comprehensive. They are entirely unfair and seek to cloud comprehension. Deceptive editing is a very effective means to an end and in each of the examples above, it worked.

The real dilemma was in the aftermath. After the videos were posted online for the world to see, the mainstream media had to decide whether or not to report on the videos.

The first consideration should have been the source of these videos. In the case of Sotomayor, the videos were actually fed to the media by the Judicial Confirmation Network, a conservative organization. The three cable news channels and the network news stations played this clip of Sotomayor, as well as her now infamous “wise Latina” comment.

The ACORN videos were posted on Andrew Breitbart’s BigGovernment.com website and shortly after their creators, Giles and O’Keefe, began appearing on Fox News. In those appearances, many of the lies in the videos were propagated, for example that O’Keefe entered the offices looking like a stereotypical pimp from the 1970s. ACORN had been in the news regularly since the 2008 election. During the presidential campaign, the community organization was accused of voter fraud and causing the collapse of the housing market. Neither accusation was true. ACORN had been a target of the conservatives for their Project Vote campaign, which registered voters in low- and middle-income neighborhoods that traditionally vote Democratic. O’Keefe cited the registration drives as a reason why he targeted the organization. The source of the videos, the history of attacks on ACORN and the zeal with which Fox News gave the videos a platform should have been suspicious, but the videos found their way into the mainstream media anyway.

The Sherrod video is probably the most stunning example of how quickly a scandal can unfold and subsequently collapse. In the case of Sherrod, the media, as well as the NAACP, the White House and the USDA, were duped by a known commodity. Breitbart had played a significant role in the ACORN sting, giving O’Keefe and Giles an audience for their videos. His website had also been attacking the Obama administration and the NAACP regularly leading up to the initial post about Sherrod. The climate was already ripe for a confrontation of this sort.

The most troubling aspect of each situation is the fact that there seemed to be no consideration about where the video was coming from, why it was coming out now and what the real motivation behind the video was. Rather than being treated as an ethical issue, the decision to air and report on these videos was treated as an every day news decision. Rather than valuing the truth, news organizations set their sights on ratings.

Had the news organizations thought about the decision to air and report on these videos, they would have looked at the decision through a number of different principles. Had they used Kant’s categorical imperative, most networks would probably have chosen not to air the videos until the full story had come out. If truth, fairness and accuracy are the ultimate goals, journalists should hold judgment until all is known. If, however, the news organizations sought to find a middle ground, using Aristotle’s mean, perhaps they would have sought to gauge their reporting on the videos, talking about them, but not showing them, explaining what has been released, but also mentioning the source of the videos and informing viewers that journalists are seeking more information before passing judgment.

If an ethical decision was made, however, it seems that the news organizations utilized Rawl’s veil of ignorance in that decision. The media put the blinders on, looked solely at the content of the videos, which was salacious and made for great television. The source of the video did not matter. The motivation behind the release of the video did not matter. Only the content mattered. And the content was solid gold.

The loyalties held by the news organization are also important to consider. If the media was loyal to journalistic standards, these videos would never had made it on air, at least until they had been properly vetted. It the media was loyal to their viewers, these videos may have been put on air, but they would have been couched and accompanied by caveats, asking viewers to consider all the information available, before making a decision. But it is easy to see that the loyalty was to the shareholders. More viewers meant more advertising dollars. Or perhaps, rather than examining where their loyalties did lie, the news organizations sought to show where their loyalties did not lie. As the mainstream media continuously comes under attack for being liberal, airing all three videos could have been a way to show viewers where their loyalties do not lie.

Another troubling aspect about the decision to air these videos is the lack of consideration for the people actually featured in the videos. Apart from Sotomayor, who was forced to explain her comments repeatedly during her confirmation hearing, the people featured in these videos lost their jobs. In the case of ACORN, O’Keefe and Giles were targeting the organization and in the long run they were successful in shutting it down. But before the entire organization collapsed, people like Vera were out of a job. Vera and others became collateral damage in a war against ACORN. Sherrod was also collateral damage. The purpose of Breitbart’s post was to attack the NAACP in response to their criticism of the Tea Party movement. Sherrod’s speech was just a means to an end, a way to prove his point. Breitbart has said he feels bad for Sherrod, for what happened to her, but he is not sorry for his part in the situation.

Vera and Sherrod both filed lawsuits to address what happened to them, but the law has made it very hard to go up against the media. Vera filed a complaint against O’Keefe and Giles for violating California’s Invasion of Privacy act, which “prohibits the recording of confidential communications without the consent of all participants.” On that count, Vera may be successful, as O’Keefe and Giles did violate the law. The complaint makes no mention of defamation or a false light invasion of privacy. Sherrod’s complaint does focus on defamation. Sherrod says she was defamed through the “editing and publishing [of] an intentionally false and misleading clip.” As in most defamation lawsuits, Sherrod has an uphill battle, as proving actual malice is extremely difficult.

There are also the long-term implications these videos will leave on the public. While the media may have reported on the truth after the fact, people often remember what they hear first, no matter how correct it is. Sotomayor had to answer question after question about her comments and any decision she writes for the Supreme Court will be scrutinized for so-called judicial activism. The ACORN employees who lost their jobs will forever have to explain themselves. Sherrod has come out the best in this situation, as the media’s mea culpa came so soon after the original reports were released.

But ultimately, the question is whether the media will continue to repeat the same mistakes and air deceptively edited videos without rooting out the facts first. And, sadly, the answer is yes.

Most recently, two National Public Radio executives found themselves caught up in a sting operation put together by James O’Keefe. Ron Schiller, an NPR fundraising executive, was caught on tape supposedly bashing the Tea Party movement and laughing about the proposal to make Sharia law the law of the land. Vivian Schiller, NPR’s CEO, resigned over the video. Ron Schiller, who had been planning to leave for another job anyway, resigned from NPR ahead of schedule, because of the video. Again, the media covered the videos and, as with the ACORN sting, this led to efforts by Congress to attempt to pull funding from NPR. The Republican-led House voted 228-192, largely along party lines, to end funding to the news organization. The measure is unlikely to make it to the floor of the Senate, where it would most likely fail anyway.

In the aftermath of the NPR media frenzy, many news organizations and blogs have taken the time to examine O’Keefe’s editing methods. The Blaze is a conservative website started by Glenn Beck. In the wake of the NPR video, the Blaze looked at the raw videos alongside the edited versions and questioned the validity of some of O’Keefe’s claims. Among many of the most scathing accusations in the video is that NPR would accept money from an apparent front group for the Muslim Brotherhood. Though the edited version of the video appears to show that Schiller knew about the Muslim Brotherhood connection, the raw video shows the two men supposedly with the organization downplaying the Muslim Brotherhood’s role. The raw video also shows that Schiller did not laugh at the group’s Sharia-for-all goal. His amused reaction was edited in from another part of the video. In the edited video, as well as the raw, Schiller does “take off his NPR hat” and say some offensive things about the Tea Party, comments that he makes clear are his own opinion. However, some of the comments that made it into the edited version were from a prominent Republican, not Schiller himself. Through deceptive editing, O’Keefe was able to attribute even more offensive statements to Schiller. Again, though, these breakdowns of the raw video and questioning of tactics happened after the fact, when the damage was already done.

While the media continues to take these videos at face value, organizations have become wise to the dirty tactics being taken against them. In January, Planned Parenthood was the target of an apparent undercover sting operation. A man asking questions about health services for sex workers visited twelve Planned Parenthood offices. Like in O’Keefe’s videos, the man explained that some of the girls were underage and in the country illegally. Planned Parenthood called the FBI. By staying ahead of the story, the videos made very little impact on the organization.

The media in the United States enjoys a great deal of freedom afforded to them by the First Amendment. But with that freedom also come responsibility. Journalism should be a public service and reporting on and showing these misleading videos does not serve the public. It is a great responsibility to report the news of the day fairly, accurately and in a comprehensive manner. Not every decision in the newsroom needs to be an ethical debate, but some decisions must be. In the case of deceptively edited video, from questionable sources, the media must do better.

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