The role of ethics in 21st century organizations has come to mean the position an organization can attain by being part of a news cycle. An excellent example of this was the recorded aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, where Duracell and American Apparel both tried to make a profit by “newsjacking” the situation. “Newsjacking” is the practice of injecting an organization’s ideas into a breaking news story and generating large amounts of media coverage and online social media engagement through the re-dissemination of the story. Though common, the ethics of this practice have yet to be discussed. This article seeks to determine the ethics of this practice and whether 21st century organizations are behaving unethically by profiting from this questionable practice. It will also address the question of whether or not consumers determine good or bad ethical practices of organizations.
Newsjacking for Profit
The most common form of newsjacking occurs when a corporation or organization takes a breaking news story and applies its own twist to the stories before re-disseminating this newly contextualized news piece on the organization’s own mediums, including blogs and other social network mediums. This is a generally accepted form of newsjacking and many online companies produce profits solely as a result of this practice. The primary reason for the acceptance of this practice is the cultural experience of the Internet. The Internet is a vast environment for ideas and knowledge, but only 33 percent of Americans stay current with news stories throughout the course of the day. This reality opens the news market to those who can meet the demands of citizens who do not have the time or desire to keep up with the news. The result is commonplace newsjacking in the form of videos and short articles, re-disseminated in easily digestible format. Many companies reap financial rewards from this practice, as it exposes their motivations to many more potential consumers. However, occasionally, companies will employ newsjacking strategies with questionable ethics, such as those companies who attempted to profit from Hurricane Sandy.
Questionable Newsjacking Practices
The multinational Duracell attempted to profit from newsjacking in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, the 2012 hurricane that battered the Atlantic coast of the U.S. Following the storm, Duracell announced publicly that the company would provide portable power stations so that people who needed to charge their devices could do so for free. This announcement created a positive image for the Duracell brand, and as a result, Duracell saw an influx in profits. Likewise, American Apparel, a widely popular clothing retailer, tried to create direct income with newsjacking by offering a 20 percent discount to those customers who had been impacted by Hurricane Sandy. Unlike the goodwill generated by Duracell, American Apparel was viewed negatively, as this practice was perceived as the company attempting to profit from a tragedy.
Duracell and American Apparel both engaged in newsjacking by becoming involved in a news story with the intent to profit. While newsjacking has become a popular method of generating revenue, the morality behind the situation is complicated. While both companies sought to profit from the effects of Hurricane Sandy, the consumer base determined that the practice of one company was ethical while the other was not. In the case of Duracell, the company contributed to the Hurricane Sandy relief efforts without directly profiting from the situation; instead, their profits were generated by good press and goodwill relating to the company’s relief efforts. American Apparel, however, attempted to directly profit from the situation surrounding Hurricane Sandy and did so without directly contributing to the relief effort. This resulted in negative publicity and an unfavorable opinion of the company by the consumer base. This example of nuance in newsjacking helps explain the complicated ethical issues inherent in coupling profit and tragedy.
Ethics in Trending News Stories
Newsjacking also creates an issue of popularity, as this form of reporting relies solely on trending topics. Newsjackers’ stories contain only what the consumer needs to know and what the newsjacker wants them to be aware of. In turn, this limits the amount of unbiased information presented to the reader or listener and distracts from news not considered popular or trendy.
This problematic situation calls into question the ethics of public safety and even public freedom, which are crucial elements of news stories and news stories unto themselves. Public safety and public freedom are often overshadowed or ignored in favor of more popular topics. Often, as a popular or trending story gains more attention in the press, it is re-disseminated via social media, the Internet and other news sources. At the same time, less popular but equally important stories dealing with ethical issues are largely ignored.
An example of this conflict is the attention recently focused on Ferguson, Missouri. Ferguson was in the national spotlight as a result of the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, by a white police officer. When news stories regarding this topic arose, they were re-disseminated via social media with little or no additional content. The overwhelming news focus on the Ferguson tragedy resulted in other news stories being neglected—important issues related to social concerns and legal rights received far less coverage.
A direct example of this was the case of Ryan Lamberson. Lamberson, a 33-year-old single father from Spokane, Washington, spent an excessive amount of money to defend himself against a lawsuit from Elf-Man, LLC. This company alleged Lamberson was engaged in illegal movie video piracy. Elf-Man’s original prosecutor, Maureen VanderMay, withdrew from the case due to “ethical issues.” Shortly after, the lawsuit itself was dropped with Elf-Man claiming it had achieved the intended result of curbing piracy. Lamberson was one of 29 people sued by Elf-Man, and nearly every case was won by the defendant through either dismissal or stipulated agreements. Afterward, Lamberson sought $208,000 from Elf-Man to cover his legal expenses, only to have his case dismissed. It can be estimated that the legal costs for Lamberson and the other 28 individuals totaled about $6 million. As Elf-Man stated that its intended mission of curbing piracy was successfully achieved without the completion of the lawsuit, this effectively meant punitive legal costs were inflicted on a defendant even without a lawsuit being won in court. This is a dangerous legal precedent that could have far-reaching and long-lasting implications and one that warrants larger media attention.
However, this story has received scant news coverage. Even locally, the Spokesman-Review, a Spokane-based newspaper, has been the only online news outlet to cover this incident in a story on August 14, 2014. Comparatively, a keyword search for “Ferguson shooting” on Google’s search engine resulted in nearly 2 million results on August 26, 2014. While not as trendy or popular in public consciousness as the story about Ferguson and Michael Brown, the issues surrounding Lamberson and Elf-Man wield significant legal implications that the public should be aware of; yet the public remains largely ignorant of this issue due to limited news coverage. This lack of balance in news reportage leads to skewed public perception of important events and news stories. In turn, balanced reporting becomes a casualty of newsjacking. When the public is not receiving important information because of biased reporting, the ethical shortcomings of newsjacking become clear.
Lobbying for News
Additionally, news outlets that engage in newsjacking fall under the pressure of their stakeholders and owners. For instance, The Blaze, an online news media outlet, is consistently criticized for biased reporting practices; the site is owned by the National Rifle Association (NRA), a powerful nonprofit organization concerned with the rights of gun owners. Since the ethics of the NRA are frequently under intense scrutiny, those organizations and people who profit from the NRA also face ethical scrutiny by association. Large, modern news corporations and organizations supported by politicians and/or political figures also face questions about their ethics in regard to the stories these news outlets report. An informal poll on the website Debate.org found that 86 percent of respondents believe that the media focuses too much on bad or negative news stories. A book written by Pippa Norris, A Virtuous Circle: Political Communications in Postindustrial Societies, discussed the effect that negative news reporting has on society. It has been reported that the higher the number of negative news stories reported, the more negative the societal perception.
According to Psychology Today, this type of news—that is, the negative reporting—is ethically sound for those who wish to seek profit from the news organization’s targeted audiences. Audiences who are bombarded by negative news stories are more likely to make unwise decisions, and these decisions can result in potential financial gain for many companies. Reverting back to the example of Ferguson and Ryan Lamberson, there is an obvious difference between the two situations and how each may correlate to a potential financial gain. The situation in Ferguson is similar to that of Hurricane Sandy in that it allows current organizations to newsjack the situation for advertisement purposes, whereas Ryan Lamberson’s case did not receive enough attention for companies to attempt to profit by newsjacking.
Using Ferguson as a case study reveals some telling information about the opportunities some people and organizations saw in the tragedy. In a rapid search on August 26, 2014, a keyword search for the word “Ferguson” retrieved over 100 million results. Of those search results, Donald Trump and David Banner were the most prominent names of those that sought publicity from this event within the month of August. Both Trump and Banner spoke out regarding the situation in Ferguson and news was re-disseminated to various media networks with their commentary added. As a result, both men—and countless others—received personal publicity as a direct result of their comments on the Ferguson tragedy.
Manufacturing the News
There is a fine line between sponsoring a newsworthy event and full-scale manufacture of the news. Red Bull, the popular energy drink company, operated extremely close to the line in October of 2012 when the company promoted Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner’s space jump from a record height of 36.5 kilometers. Baumgartner broke many records and became the first human being to break the sound barrier in a free fall.
Red Bull broadcasted the event live on YouTube to as many as 7.3 million viewers. The jump was also shown on 40 television networks in 50 countries, in addition to 130 digital outlets. While it can be argued that Red Bull simply sponsored and promoted this groundbreaking news event as opposed to explicitly manufacturing it, the jump and the resulting coverage still produced a great deal of publicity and profit for Red Bull. Of course, it may be reasonable to consider Red Bull’s involvement in Baumgartner’s jump as ethical because the jump also highlighted important advances in science and space research; however, there remains the possibility of another, less ethical scenario in which the corporation deliberately manufactured a newsworthy event with the sole interest of generating maximum profit for itself.
Newsjacking to Further an Agenda
Furthering one’s own agenda by increasing audience agitation is a critical element in the motivations behind newsjacking. A prime example of this methodology is the manipulation of the news by Alex Jones’s website, InfoWars. Jones, a conspiracy theorist who believes that both the September 11 attacks and the Boston Marathon bombing in April of 2013 were government conspiracies, furthers his personal agenda by delivering an orchestrated combination of news items designed to prove his theories.
Jones has been largely successful in furthering his agenda this way, as evidenced from a quick Google search for the keywords “Boston marathon bombings false flag Alex Jones.” This search, conducted on September 20, 2014, returned 467,000 results in numerous formats, including YouTube interviews with Jones himself, several articles on his InfoWars website and various reaction pieces from popular websites such as Gawker.com, Mediaite.com and Salon.com. These media formats reporting on Jones’ theory contributed to greater exposure and created considerable traffic for Jones’ website. As a result of such exposure, his profile as a leading “Truther” increased significantly and ultimately contributed to his website’s bottom line due to increased ad placement revenue.
In its purest iteration, the news is a compilation of facts designed for consumption by the public. Yet when Jones and others operate with ulterior motives and rearrange and re-report news stories in such a way that their own worldview is projected as truth, it can be misleading and uninformative. This creates a sense of cerebral dissonance for the consumer, who can no longer determine the difference between actual events and biased interpretation of events. Such manipulative dissonance calls into question the ethics of this form of newsjacking.
Online Marketing Ethics
Online marketing is based on the amount of traffic a website receives and the potential audience a company or organization can reach by advertising on the website. Large marketing companies partner with more popular websites and thus reach more potential customers. Currently, organizations appear to focus less on the ethics of a site on which they choose to advertise than on the potential for reaching the most customers. To use a previous example, even though Duracell may have helped with the relief effort following Hurricane Sandy, its motivation was to increase the strength of its online marketing by inserting itself into the social media environment via newsjacking.
Another high-profile example of this divisive behavior occurred when Kenneth Cole, an American clothing designer, repeatedly re-appropriated the common military phrase “boots on the ground” to promote his company’s new line of footwear in concert with the decision of President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry to send soldiers into Syria following reports of chemical warfare and human rights violations. Despite facing extensive backlash for his perceived insensitivity, Cole defended his actions by claiming that the ends—in this case, an increase in revenue for his company—justified the means.
The varied public reactions to these instances of newsjacking for profit indicate that news organizations are operating as though ethics are driven by profitability and that individual consumers have the power to decide whether a company’s actions are ethically sound. In short, consumers decide the ethical standing of a company with their purchasing dollars.
Conclusion — Ethics for Profit?
As evidenced by the examples explored above, it seems clear that the consumer and corporations’ standards (or lack thereof) decide organizations’ ethics. Which situation is less ethically sound: news coverage of the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager or news coverage of a company that forced 29 individuals into debt to defend themselves against groundless lawsuits? The discrepancy in the coverage of both situations lends credence to the belief that the ethics of modern news organizations are based on the amount of potential profit that can be made. Such organizations rely on the consumer base from which they profit to decide what is ethical and what is not. This means companies’ ethics are constantly changing depending on their research of their consumer base and that the ethics of their decisions are solely dependent on their consumers. This indicates that ethics is merely a tool news organizations can use to market to a specific audience. Organizations who possess insight into the purchasing habits of their consumer base can better position themselves to reap maximum profits by newsjacking stories in such a way that they are not perceived as profiting from a tragedy, but rather subtly associating their organization’s name with the story in a positive light.
The integrity and impartiality of journalism has been in serious danger because of the continually diversifying and fragmenting Internet, which cultivates and encourages intense competition between news agencies aiming to reach an ideologically similar audience. Just as facts can be arranged so as to attract the attention of a specific target market, news stories can also be organized according to similar guidelines. Therefore there are ethical questions we must consider when determining the motivations and influencing factors of a particular news source. As ethical arbiters, consumers must consider whether the organization they are considering patronizing will profit from their association with a particular news story, and, if so, whether there are ethically ambiguous associations created specifically to increase profits. Careful analysis of news sources by the consumer is necessary in order to determine both an organization’s motivations and ethical standing in the competitive world of news media. It seems clear that many organizations behave unethically by associating themselves with news stories specifically to reap profits from that association, thus capitalizing on a tragedy by newsjacking. However, if consumers pay close attention to the calculated relationships between news outlets, organizations and biased reporting, they can make better decisions that promote more ethical reporting and business practices.
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