Integrity in US media

Carl Sagan once said “The dumbing down of America is most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media”, even going on to say it presented: “a kind of celebration of ignorance”.

The problem is that much of what is presented in the mainstream US media today is short, bright and loud, so is it designed more to attract attention than to inform?

The beginning of the ‘dumbing down’ process started with celeb news. Flash cars, beautiful women and rich men make this type of news very viewer friendly, if not content heavy. The result is the rest of the news then looks rather drab and dull in comparison. This in turn has led to the addition of ‘interesting’ little details and commentaries slipped in to current affairs.

A good example of this is was in late 2013. Fox psychiatrist Dr Keith Ablow came on air and said that President Obama’s difficult early life had “led him to feel victimized, hurt and injured” and went on to say “There’s a real victim mentality here, and it really explains the president’s whole mentality and many of his policies.” Whilst his early life no doubt had an impact on the man he is today, this was a piece of supposition and sensationalist guesswork.

This sense of dramatisation of the news increases the need for stories to have baddies, drama and embellishment (like a Hollywood film), even within stories that are already quite exciting to begin with.

When reporting the capture of Joaquin Guzman (Mexican drug lord) in 2014, the Washington Post decided to add that instead of being caught in the mountains with his wife, he was in fact with his secretary. They then said: “An earlier version of this story erroneously said that Joaquin Guzman was found in bed with his secretary. He was found with his wife. This version has been corrected”.

So with the viewer’s attention becoming so hard to grab, it seems the integrity takes a back seat while drama drives the content. So is media is becoming less and less fact based, and more opinion, guesswork and supposition?

It’s not all bad of course: many media outlets are stricter with their content and it is more informative than dramatic.

The real question is, how long will these outlets last in the face of greater ratings for a Kardashian wedding than a civil war?

CIA black sites: offshore interrogation centres and an increasingly aggressive CIA

With details of the newly published report by the US Senate coming out, this 4 year investigation is shining light on some of the questionable interrogation techniques and the medical staff involved in the “safe keeping” of the detainees of the US Government.

Whilst much of the attention has been focused on the legality and usefulness of the interrogation techniques, many within the medical community have expressed concerns over the role of medical personnel in these interrogation sites.

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) are a Nobel Peace Prize winning organisation that investigate and help uncover abuses around the world. They have called for an in depth investigation into the role played by the medical staff employed within the various US governmental departments that use interrogative techniques.

In the original version of the Hippocratic Oath physicians swore to work at the “convenience and advantage of the patient; and I will willingly refrain from doing any injury or wrong from falsehood”. Whilst the Hippocratic Oath is not legally binding, it is a guide and ethical convention that most physicians consider extremely important. This empathetic and caring responsibility seems not to sit well with the roles played by physicians in the CIA ‘black sites’ or even in Guantanamo Bay. This role is quite simple; ensure that the detainee does not die.

There have been several key personalities that have come to light as a result of the investigation, James Elmer Mitchell being one. Mitchell is a former US Air Force psychologist, where he trained interrogators in the SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape) school. Along with former USAF psychologist Bruce Jessum, he was paid a reported $80 million to design and implement an interrogation programme aimed at detained suspected terrorists.

From what has been leaked of the report so far, it seems that physical and mental harm are not necessarily negatively viewed. Reports of 180 hours of sleep deprivation and hours of stress positions involving standing on broken or damaged lower limbs are emerging.

Dr Mitchell has been reported as saying: “I am just a guy who got asked to do something for his country by people at the highest level of government, and I did the best that I could.”

Appealing to patriotism is a popular move in avoidance tactics, but with the amount of noise coming from the medical community, this looks to be an issue that won’t blow over quickly.

The death of 43 missing Mexican students

On the 26th September this year, 43 student teachers travelled to the town of Iguala, Mexico to raise funds, and disappeared after violent clashes with municipal police. In the six weeks following that day, evidence has been unearthed to prove that police, the mayor, and gang members were all involved in the mass kidnapping. On 7 November, three gang members confessed to the killing of all 43, explaining how the bodies were then burnt at a landfill site, and the remains thrown in the river.

Human rights abuse
Decades of drug related violence has made this Central-American country one of the most dangerous in the world to live, and it was always a matter of time before such an incident took place. In this case, the most shocking factor is that the police, whose primary function should be to protect civilians, seem to have been heavily involved in the supposed murders – with eyewitnesses reporting that the students were bundled in their cars after the initial altercation.

Corruption
The mayor of Iguala, Jose Luis Abarca, has been arrested along with the town’s police chief – and the governor of the Guerrero region has also resigned. The repercussions are being felt at the highest level, with protestors setting fires outside the presidential palace in Mexico City. The Mexican people have had enough of the continued corruption and violence, and the government needs to act decisively in dealing with the core issues of the crimes.

Continued violence
The story has shocked the world, shining a spotlight on the issues seen in the country on a daily basis. How can Mexico change? What will fix this country which struggles with its burden of being the centre point between North and South America? Is there an answer?

Strength in power
There is no simple solution: the drug cartels are ruthless and have terrifying power over politicians and police throughout the country. The answer lies at the top of the political hierarchy, President Peña Nieto has to be stronger. He has to make sure his appointments are morally sound and he must remove the elements of outside influence from any position of power.

Global assistance
The rest of the world must support him in order for this to happen, as the cartels have become too strong for the state to handle alone. Violence and corruption have grown immeasurably because characters such as Abarca, with links to organised crime, are able to sit in positions of power and neglect their responsibilities. Purging the system of corrupt politicians and fighting the cartels is likely to be a long and difficult project, but with the support of the world Mexico can at least try to reach that goal and give its 122 million citizens renewed hope.

Facebook’s psychological study: an ethical dilemma

In January 2012 the social media giant Facebook undertook what can only be called a research experiment on 700,000 of its users. The company decided to strategically skew what these users could see when they logged into their personal profiles. Half of these individuals were confronted by content which had been proven to have happy connotations, while the other half were met with words which were known to be sadder than average. Was it really ethical to analyse this large group of unsuspecting users? Facebook have argued that they were merely testing their product, and were not undertaking research, but there has been significant outrage over the project.

Social Media
One of the biggest problems with social media is the perceived lack of privacy which happens when you discuss your private life online. It seems bizarre that even with this being an issue regularly discussed, Facebook should decide to conduct such an experiment on unwitting users. Could it be that Facebook actually thought what they were doing was actually morally acceptable?

Research protocol
In the past few weeks an American professor has argued that the experiment actually violated a law in the state of Maryland that requires human subjects to give consent when participating in a study. Facebook have retorted by saying that what they did was not actually research. There seems to be some regret at making a poor business decision, but there is no admission of ethical culpability.

Control
Objectively, it is clear to see that this sort of action must be considered experimental. Manipulating an individual’s emotions must be considered on a par with physical research. What is even more concerning is the fact that there would have been children and adolescents within the sample, unknowing that what they were seeing was being controlled in a big brother-esque manner by adults who have no right to guide them. Facebook are in a position of great power, with a global audience of over 500 million people. It is of utmost importance that they act responsibly when dealing with their customers.

Regulation
What has to be realised is that Facebook are a company that want to constantly grow and improve their product. Facebook is so ingrained in our daily lives that inevitably when they change things people will be affected. Should we be looking for more global regulations to protect us from this manipulation? How can we do that? There is no straight answer to either question but the balance needs to be right. People deserve to have their privacy respected by Facebook, while the company itself has the right to expand. The question is, how can we do both?