Glenn Logan took off from the post about Paulette Leaphart’s self-promoting breast cancer awareness 1,000-mile walk and CNN reporter Jessica Ravitz’s strangely equivocal exposé to muse on the toxic influence of social media. It’s a great post, as usual for Glenn, and I’m especially grateful because I’m behind on posts today but I have an ethical obligation to watch the Red Sox Opening Day game. (Pirates-Red Sox tied 0-0 in the 5th.)
Here is Glenn Logan’s Comment of the Day on the post “From The Ethics Alarms “Do The Ends Justify The Means?” Files: The Breast Cancer Survivor’s Inspiring Scam”:
This is yet another social media-driven disaster. We have proven ourselves unable to handle the medium, either as consumers or producers of content. In the grand scheme of things, social media has probably been the vehicle for more scams, dissociation from the real world, submersion into self-congratulatory alternate reality, fake news, and general mayhem than any innovation in my memory.
I have occasionally referred to Twitter as “the Devil,” and my loathing for Facebook knows no bounds. I still use it once a week or so just to check on friends and family (for which it is at least useful), but 99% of my input to Facebook consists of “Happy birthday, (first name here). Many happy returns” or to message Jack a link. No Luddite I, as I have been using the Internet since the early 1990’s Usenet days, and Linux as my primary operating system since 1997, so technology and I are old, old friends.
But the temptation of social media to generate attention in the name of good causes is, to me, the lesson here besides the obvious ethical wreckage caused by “the ends justify the means.” Many of us see the apparent benefits of fame, and want our 15 minutes of it very badly, usually for entirely selfish reasons. When we can achieve that in the name of a good cause, it becomes all the more insidious as a rationalization for otherwise self-serving and dishonest behavior.
I sympathize somewhat with the dishonest reporter, who simply can’t resolve the ethical conflict in the story between the unalloyed good of raising breast cancer awareness and the indisputable dishonesty of the “heroine.” Women, understandably, are particularly terrified of the ravages of breast cancer, and sometimes that foe can seem so horribly demonic that tossing sweet reason aside even in the face of overwhelming evidence is almost effortless, even mandatory. After all, reason offers cold, heartless comfort in the face of such powerful emotional arguments, however ethically bankrupt.
But I cannot excuse Ravitz’s failure as a reporter on this basis. Powerful, conflicting emotional stories are an everyday human experience, and it is a reporter’s job to be fair, objective, and honest in the face of the heart-rending human tragedies that real life too often exposes. Ravitz shows here what “do goodery” can do to a professional. Tragically, most reporters these days enter the profession from the ethically flawed premise of trying to “do good” and “make the world a better place.” News reporting is not the right place for those aspirations, and this disastrous failure could be the archetype for why.
“Doing good” is a powerful motivator that can create ethical conflicts that make rationalizations almost mandatory for the sanity of the person experiencing them, especially when internalized as a raison d’être. How could Ravitz live with herself if her article damaged the noble cause of breast cancer awareness by exposing one of its messengers to the harsh light of truth, a light that would possibly destroy a woman who survived something so terrifying and has arguably achieved (at least at some level) the laudatory goal of increasing interest, awareness, and possibly donations to that worthy cause?
Yet that is what she must do — compassionately, if possible, but only to the extent that it doesn’t tarnish the truth. And circling back to social media, what would be the impact on Ravitz’s career from the outrage there if she had done what her profession demands? I think we all suspect that it could be significant, even permanent.
Which brings us finally to this: Is it even possible for reporters to be fair and still remain employed these days when writing about such emotion-driven issues? The outrage machine has devastated so many careers in many professions, but certainly news reporting is near the top. It seems that we have reached the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” point where the truth is less important than bringing home a paycheck, and every article must be written with an eye toward social media’s reaction.
I can only draw one conclusion from this: Chaos.