“All the News That’s Fit to Print” brought to you by… the iPhone

Is the best of American journalism having an affair with Apple and Co.?

Originally published in MIT's The Tech Blogs on May 24, 2012

I am not sure what some of the major U.S. media outlets have been up to or what kind of rethinking they have subjected their long-held values to, but judging by the enthusiastic zeal with which certain publications have been featuring mobile devices and high-tech social tools and services right in the midst of their own news reports, it seems that their early timid trysts with technology companies have now evolved into a sealed and consummated union in full view of their readers.

Product placement in digital media franchises, such as game shows and reality television, is nothing new. The practice even dates back to the early days of cinema, when early films would place images of specific products, from typewriters to literary publications, in their story lines. Typically, though, this form of advertisement takes place in the context of entertainment media — television shows and contests, films, video games and the like.

What is disturbing is when this branded content is embedded in what the audience assumes to be original news-reporting and the best of American journalistic practice, and when it is led to believe that the reported facts were acquired in part thanks to the said products – that’s where the ethical line has been transgressed and the public’s trust is being trampled upon.

The latest and most ostensive cases of such transgression can be found in The New Yorker’s May 11 Daily Comment piece, “The Boy on the Bicycle,” by Julia Ioffe.

The purpose of the article, sub-titled “Behind the Iconic Image of the Moscow Protests,” is apparently to explain a quite arresting photograph taken by the Moscow-based author and published earlier on her Twitter page, which shows a little boy on a kids tricycle facing alone a row of heavily protected and helmeted Russian security police during the anti-Putin street protests that preceded his presidential inauguration earlier this month.

Perhaps not too surprisingly, the picture attracted attention, especially when it went viral after the Twitter publication. The image indeed bears an uncanny resemblance to the world-famous ‘Tank Man’ (aka ‘Unknown Rebel’) standing defiantly before a column of Chinese military tanks on Tiananmen Square during the events of 1989, captured by an AP photographer, among others. And, judging by some of the praises posted in online comments, it may even seem set to make photographic history with the likes of the naked 9-year old girl burned by napalm and fleeing an attack from planes during the Vietnam War, captured by AP photographer Nick Ut.

In fact Ioffe herself refers to Tiananmen in her Twitter caption-post.

In addition to the attention, the photograph raised some hard questions as to how such a shot could be achieved, and as acknowledged in the ‘response article,’ they came from people “from around the world.” How could the parents have such poor judgement as to bring their young child to a potentially dangerous event – and one that Ioffe describes as actually so? And as one Facebook commentator wrote, “How can he [the child] be anyone’s supporter in [at] this age?” Ioffe’s response that a New Yorker commentator had identified the boy as ‘Peter’ [a curiously, coincidentally non-Russian form of the name ‘Pyotr’] and that he is “a Prokhorov supporter” only adds more head-scratching confusion.

By her own accounts, Ioffe spotted the protesting little boy as she was returning from three hours of reporting on the streets, where the public protests and the authorities’ response were quickly turning chaotic and even violent. She wrote that she captured the boy thanks to her Dutch colleague-journalist, who first saw the startling scene: “Look! Look! There’s the picture!” [he said]. I saw a small boy on what looked like a tricycle moving through a scrum of people raining abuse on the police. Then he just stopped. I had followed him, my phone still in hand, and, when he stopped, I kneeled down and snapped the picture. I posted the picture on Twitter, misspelling Tiananmen, and went to get something to eat.”

The first question that pops up is one of course of journalistic integrity. Even if such a scene of a little boy facing the Russian police did take place, once we know that the action on the streets was actually taking place in the square behind the police row and that the space where the boy was can be considered safe since no violence was being perpetrated there, it is then hard to see how a comparison with Tiananmen is not misleading, and the very act of taking the photograph somewhat exploitative.

I will leave the author to do her own explaining on this amazingly coincidental but admittedly beautifully framed shot – which she does in her New Yorker May 11 piece and on her Facebook page – as well as leave readers to decide for themselves. After all, it may very well be a perfectly real, non-staged situation, and as Ioffe herself described it, “a complete accident.” If this says anything, another online commentator posted another shot of the same little boy.

But while I am certainly bemused by the photograph, it is the bold, unscrupulous brand placement that particularly rubs me the wrong way.

Not only the social network Twitter is mentioned three times in the May 11 piece [Facebook once], but the journalist-Moscow correspondent does not fail to let us know that she took her unique shot of the little boy with her iPhone. Her Dutch colleague, Olaf Koens, also, she tells us, had been documenting the protests with his iPhone “for hours.” Apple’s device is thus mentioned twice in the article.

Fair enough to inform readers that the picture was taken on a cell phone. [Although I still have to come across a professional photojournalist from a major agency, covering some news event or world conflict, writing in his/her caption or accompanying article, “I saw x happening, and then, I took out my Nikon D7000 and snapped the shot.”] But do we need to know that it is an iPhone? Is this meeting journalism’s professional goal of informing the public for its best interests? Apparently Ioffe/The New Yorker think it is.

Ioffe also reminds us what swell tool Twitter is: “I took ham-fisted pictures of all of this with my iPhone and tried to upload them to my Twitter feed, which in these situations is especially convenient: a notebook and a newswire in one.”
I am still struggling to imagine a professional photojournalist gushing about the said Nikon D7000’s 16.2 MP DX-format CMOS sensor and Full 1080p HD Movies with Full Time Autofocus within his/her published descriptions of the captured scene…

For sure, this is not the first journalist or publication to sing the praises of online social services and new technology within what is supposed to be pure, professional news-reporting. [The various conflicts and popular street protests around the world in recent years, for example, seem to have been deemed by Western mass media the perfect context for inserting such laudatory comments for products and services in their coverage.] But that does not absolve them from choosing carefully their own ethical standards.

On a parenthetical and personal note, since I have been going through iPhones like through underwear due to various technical hi-cups and defects [and that goes for my Macs too], my comments are no doubt blurred by my rather bilious disposition towards Apple [to the point that I suspect foul play in the way they design or build their devices – how come they break so fast - and/or that previous models or parts are withdrawn from production so soon, forcing each time customers to buy a brand new item?].

But personal gripes apart, the worst offense I see in this piece is the finger raised to ethical journalistic integrity and the public’s informational good in favor of commercial interests.

Sadly, as said, The New Yorker is not an isolated case. For another recent example of an iPhone-enamored piece of news-reporting, The New York Times’ own report on the Moscow popular protests doesn’t disappoint. The May 9 article takes care to let us know that anticorruption activist Aleksei Navalny is using the right device: “Typically, Mr. Navalny posts his location from an iPhone, and invariably hundreds of Muscovites show up to join him.”

Just like in the New Yorker piece, the implicit message that the use of the phone somehow led to a positive outcome [the documenting "for hours" of the protests, the capture of the unique shot] is palpable. A masterpiece of providence, The Times even thought of hyperlinking the word ‘iPhone’ in the article – just in case readers want to know more – with a full page on the paper’s Website entitled ‘Times Topics – iPhone’ devoted to the dear device.

I am not suggesting that we revert to the stone age of journalism. On the contrary, it is important to acknowledge the fact that both mass and alternative media have now merged with digital innovations, with most journalists even in traditional outlets now using Twitter and other online tools in their news-gathering and -writing. And the very creative and productive collaborations that such mergers have brought should be celebrated. But there is a difference between using such products for one’s news-reporting work, and pushing them down readers’ throats, and in a promotional manner on top of it.

The way American and other Western media have pushed the merits — and by all means these are real — of Facebook and its siblings on the Net like Twitter and YouTube [all US-made productions by the way] in our face in their coverage of the ‘Arab Spring’ riots in the Middle East and Northern Africa amounts to no less than the practice of force-feeding geese, out of which one hopes to milk the most profits. Some went as far as calling the online and mobile tools and services the catalysts, or at least essential instruments of democratic change sweeping the region.

The messages and methods are less than subtle to say the least: a half-page photograph in The New York Times’ Feb 21, 2011 issue accompanying a story on anti-government protesters in Bahrain, shows a scene of destitution as people camp out at night in the dark streets, apparently bereft of every material comforts. But sure enough, the veiled woman sitting on the ground who is centered in the photo is holding very visibly a Blackberry cell phone, whose well-lit screen jumps out of the darkened background. In another instance, a Newsweek article on ‘war’ and ‘technology’ (May 10, 2010) seems to imply that the ease of access to video-recording and on-the-spot photography for citizens of all stripes thanks to the Internet and mobile devices “allow[s] anyone to document war as they see it.” Truly, why bother with journalism degrees and learning the ethical values and limits of covering conflicts, when an iPhone [which the article cites] can turn you into a war correspondent overnight?!

While the connective powers of the Internet and mobile phones have undeniably played a large part in changes in Egypt and Tunisia, amplifying their impact is simply misleading.

In fact, the U.S. media’s adoring, servile coverage of the golden children of American social media innovation can easily lead one to suspect that lucrative deals were in the make during the backroom meetings between American technology companies and local activists that preceded the Arab Spring protests. These have been documented, and might be part of the larger claim that the U.S. government may have been behind the engines that sparked the revolutionary spirit in these parts of the world — a claim that is worth an investigative piece of its own.

But while spreading democracy sounds great, it doesn’t change the fact that the public deserves to be accurately informed, through news that is devoid of commercial messages.

All in all, I am not sure under what terms these brand names such as the iPhone are being cited in news reports, and what Apple’s agreements with these media companies are. I also admit not doing my homework of digging deeper into government regulations on published or on-air promotion of a product and the requirements for disclosure to the public. But they do exist. And in any case, even the basics of media ethics dictate that not only the promotional material should be clearly identified as such [i.e. an advertisement], but also that all arrangements pertaining to the product placement between the two parties be fully disclosed to audiences [i.e. whether valuables or services were exchanged].

Are today’s media consumers too accustomed to being immersed in strategic marketing messages to even distinguish news from commercial content? Or perhaps a reporter’s seemingly innocuous mention of her cell phone brand in her article does not contain enough of the standard traits of an official advertisement to be considered one, or at least capable of the same effects?

My guess though is that millions of us subconsciously absorb those branded messages and products camouflaged in news stories, and fail to demand the disclosure about our news media’s arrangements with corporations that I mentioned here above.

A brief online search about the Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of the screaming little Vietnamese girl, Kim Phuc, and its author did not reveal the camera brand or even type that was used — unlike the well-publicized iPhone of the New Yorker piece, among other communications technologies being promoted in the U.S. news media.

What we do know, however, is that contrary to Ioffe, who after taking the picture apparently walked away from the scene [which she had described as potentially dangerous] and left the little boy to his fate [she herself writes "I never did find out who that little boy is, or how his parents let him wheel that close to the police"] – Ut on the other hand, after taking the photograph, doused the girl with water and took her and the surrounding injured children to the nearest hospital, where he continued to visit them during their treatment. Phuc later said she credits the AP photojournalist with saving her life. He took the iconic and most haunting photo of the Vietnam War on June 8, 1972.

Different times, different technologies and media industries, for sure. And it wouldn’t be fair to compare the very different scales, contexts and risks involved of the bicycle boy’ and the napalm-burned girl’s stories [i.e. street protests vs. a full-blown war]. But still, the instinctive responses and behaviors from the witnessing journalists towards their subjects are very interesting because they are so polarly opposite. Without wanting to draw too fast and stereotypical conclusions, what I believe they reveal is a difference in professional standards and personal ethical values.

It is also noteworthy that an editorial debate took place in the AP Bureau about the informational value of publishing the controversial photograph of the naked child; while it can be safely assumed that no such critical discussion occurred before the publication on the ‘gatekeeper-free’ Twitter of today’s media landscape [despite questions raised about the veracity of the snapped scene].

Finally, who knows if these two isolated cases of journalists’ responses in the midst of a momentous news event do not each reflect the larger journalistic values of their times? American journalism in the 1970s was not without ethical missteps. But today’s values in many Western mass and alternative media seem more commercially and personally publicity-driven than reaching for the higher morals of the professional journalistic vocation.

Different times, different news-reporting technologies. But personal and media ethics don’t change. At least, they shouldn’t.