A CASE STUDY OF JEMELE HILL’S SUSPENSION AND MEDIA ETHICS

INTRODUCTION

Looking critically into the suspension of Jemele Hill, an anchor of SportsCenter by Entertainment Sports and Programming Network (ESPN) based on the allegation of violation of media ethics. Hill, an American sports journalist with ESPN was suspended following a series of controversial tweets she made critical of the President and in response to Jerry Jones owner of the Dallas Cowboys. This was related to the Take the Knee protest which was previously ongoing and initiated by players who knelt during the anthem in a bid to raise awareness of police brutality and racial injustice in the United States.

President Trump and his surrogates had criticized the National Football League (N.F.L) for allowing players to sit or kneel during the playing of the anthem calling it a sign of disrespect to the soldiers, the flag and the National Anthem.  Hill had earlier stated in a series of tweets that,Donald Trump is a white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself with other white supremacists.” and “Trump is the most ignorant, offensive president of my lifetime. His rise is a direct result of white supremacy. Period” Her blunt language apparently infuriated the president by which he replied in blaming the ESPN host for the network’s rating drops; “With Jemele Hill at the mike, it is no wonder ESPN ratings have ‘tanked.’ In fact, tanked so badly it is the talk of the industry!. ” Hill however did not apologize for her remarks but only clarified that they were her own personal views noting that she is first a citizen before being associated with ESPN and expressed regret that her comments may have “painted ESPN in an unfair light”.

Jemele Hill’s suspension by ESPN was stated by the company as a result of her violating their social media guidelines which had previously been updated earlier this year.

The controversy in general had raised a lot of comments and questions, some with the view that Hill had in the actual sense done nothing wrong but voice her opinion and that her suspension was only a punishment for criticizing an important business partner while others believed her actions were “outrageous and a fire-able offense.” The needful is to evaluate if Hill really did violate ESPN’s code of conduct in relation to media ethics or is being placed on a controversial spot because of the involvement of ESPN’s business partners.

CASE FACTS

On September 11, 2017, Jemele Hill made a series of tweets critical of President Donald Trump including describing him as a “white supremacist”. ESPN had then issued a statement saying Hill’s comments “do not represent the position of ESPN. We have discussed with Jemele and she recognizes her actions were inappropriate” being her first violation. Hill later clarified that she stood by her comments as representative of her personal beliefs; “My regret is that my comments and the public way I made them painted ESPN in an unfair light.”

Following the tweet Jemele made in response to Jerry Jones, the owner of Dallas Cowboys who had stated that any player who disrespected the flag would not play; ESPN suspended her for two weeks for a second violation of their social media guidelines. The tweet that triggered the suspension read, “This play always works. Change happens when advertisers are impacted. If you feel strongly about JJ’s statement, boycott his advertisers.’’ She later went on to tweet, “Just so we’re clear: I’m not advocating a NFL boycott. But an unfair burden has been put on the players in Dallas and Miami w/ anthem directives” Meanwhile ESPN has a 15.2 billion dollar deal with the league to broadcast NFL games throughout 2021.

In a statement ESPN said, “Jemele Hill has been suspended for two weeks for a second violation of our social media guidelines. She previously acknowledged letting her colleagues and company down with an impulsive tweet. In the aftermath, all employees were reminded of how individual tweets may reflect negatively on ESPN and that such actions would have consequences. Hence, this decision.” The network’s guidelines updated earlier this year, stated ESPN’s  employee working in news could not tweet about “political or social issues, candidates or office holders”. ESPN public editor Jim Bradly weighed in on Hill’s tweets then, calling them “an error in judgement” arguing that calling Trump a white supremacist is an “opinion”.

It would be of interest to know that during the NBA playoffs, Hill was suspended from her post after referencing Adolph Hitler in an article about the then NBA champions Boston Celtics and the Detroit Pistons. Hill wrote in an editorial describing why she could not support the Celtics, “Rooting for the Celtics is like saying Hitler was a victim. It’s like hoping Gorbaucher would get to the blinking red button before Reagan. Deserving or not, I still hate the Celtics.” The comment generated a negative response and that portion of the editorial was taken out shortly after the column was published. Hill was subsequently suspended for one week and she issued an apology through ESPN.

EMERGING ACTIONS/REACTIONS

Some criticized Hill’s comments, including  White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who called them “outrageous and a fire-able offense by ESPN”, Trump criticized the network and demanded an apology. Others voiced support for Hill and criticized ESPN and the White House responses arguing that Hill’s comments were accurate and that a White House official be fired infringed on the First Amendment which reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or of the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances”. Sports Illustrator’s legal analyst Michael Caan  wrote that although Hill has a First Amendment right to tweet her views, that right did not insulate her from sanction by her private sector employer. Attorney David Wachtel also weighed in for a Lifehacker explainer saying, “The baseline is that you don’t have a First Amendment protections in private sector employment.” Wachtel told Lifehacker, “You can be fired for activity on social media.”

ESPN public editor Jim Bradly took into consideration Hill’s tweets saying, “Her Trump tweets clearly violated ESPN’s political and election guidelines”, he wrote. “Here there’s nothing I can find that suggests Hill’s NFL tweets were in violation of any specific guideline.”

In the wake of these pair of controversies, ESPN released revised social media guidelines for its employees. According to ESPN President John Skipper, the changes were not made specifically in response to Hill’s incidents, but more because of what those controversies reflected. For ESPN, part of the problem is its being dragged into a political battle and political charged space it wants little to do with following the network’s recent drops in ratings. The revised social media guidelines are not widely different from the previous set, but the change is mainly in the addition of a preamble that ties the policies to ESPN’s larger mission. This is considered very necessary now that political and social issues elements are an unavoidable part of any social media platform. ESPN could have opted for a long, imposing set of guidelines that would have likely been impossible to police and could have also prompted its staff to decide social media wasn’t worth the effort. But the preface lays out why the new guidelines are important to ESPN as an entity and not just to each individual posting on social media. For instance, part of the preamble authored by Kelvin Merida, senior vice president and Editor-in-Chief read, “…Do nothing that would undercut your colleagues’ work or embroil the company in unwanted controversy. We reserve the right to take action for violations of these principles. At ESPN, we have a shared responsibility to one another that accompanies the benefits we collectively enjoy. We respect your intelligence, champion your creativity and trust your best judgement.”

According to a columnist who had spoken to Hill in the past, Hill had stated, “It’s very important to make the distinction between politics and commentary, information and discussion of social issues” She had later went on to say, “Racism isn’t politics. Racism is an issue of right and wrong. Tweeting about significant issues that affect marginalized people isn’t politics. That’s right and wrong. If I had to guess, I would say I’ve increased my tweets about social issues about 20%. I’ve tried really hard not to let these issues consume my feed, because there are a lot of days I want to have fun on Twitter. I want to debate with Power and Insecure fans about what’s happening on the show. I want to make jokes and have silly arguments but unfortunately those days feel like they happen less”

Hill probably felt her tweets were just her personal response to what she considered a “social issue” but they were unfortunately linked to ESPN and eventually led to her suspension. She appears to be someone who is passionate about airing her views judging from the fact that her being punished in the past did not deter her from making such controversial comments.  Her suspension was to last for two weeks but her future at ESPN remains uncertain.  

APPLICATION OF ETHICAL THEORIES

Media ethics consists of various areas such as issues of moral principles and values as applied to the conduct, roles and content of the mass media, in particular journalistic ethics and advertising ethics. In relation to news coverage it includes issues such as impartiality, objectivity, balance, bias, privacy and the public interest. The issues of freedom of speech and aesthetic values (taste) are primarily at home in media ethics and seem to be the ones that have drawn more attention in recent happenings.

Journalism ethics as required in the context of this narrative is one of the most well defined branches of media ethics. Topics covered include;

  • News manipulation: News can manipulate and be manipulated. Governments and corporations may attempt to manipulate news media; governments, for example, by censorship and corporations by share ownership. Methods of manipulation are subtle and many. Manipulation may be voluntary or involuntary and those being manipulated may not be aware of this.
  • Truth: Truth may conflict with other many other values such as public interest, privacy, fantasy i.e in the mixing of fantasy and truth resulting in ethical dilemmas, and taste as in the  case of audience sensitivity [photojournalism]
  • Conflict with the law:  Journalistic ethics may conflict with the law over issues such as the protection of confidential news sources. There is also the question of the extent to which it is ethically acceptable to break the law in order to obtain news.

In democratic countries, a special relationship exists between media and government.  Modern democratic governments exist in representation of millions by hundreds. For the representatives to be accountable and for the process of government to be transparent, effective communication paths must exist to their constituents. Today, these paths consist primarily of the mass media to the extent that if press freedom disappeared, so would most political accountability. As such, journalism functions as democracy’s critical infrastructure. In this area, media ethics merges with issues of civil rights and politics.

Jemele Hill’s suspension according to ESPN was based on the grounds of her violating their social media guidelines which were just recently revised after the contention surrounding Hill. The key changes to ESPN’s social media policy are;

“All social media activity by our journalists comes under these guidelines. Everything we post or comment on in social media is public. And everything we do in public is associated with ESPN.”

“ESPN is a journalistic organization (not a political or advocacy organization).  We should do nothing to undermine that position. We are committed to inclusion, tolerance and that which makes us different. But we must remember that public comments on social platforms will reflect on ESPN and may affect your own credibility as a journalist.”

“You are strongly encouraged to seek advice from a trusted colleague or supervisor before tweeting or posting something that may conflict with our guidelines and damage your reputation. In the spirit of using these guidelines as a framework of support, there may be alternative actions or ESPN forums to accomplish the overall goal of your intended tweet or social post.”

Jemele Hill’s suspension has raised a lot of questions about how journalists and commentators should behave. In ESPN’s guidelines, it states that commentary regarding political and social issues should “merit our time and resources”, “be related to a current issue impacting sports”, “refrain from overt partisanship”, “avoid personal attacks and inflammatory rhetoric”, and that communication with producers and editors should take place prior to any posting.

According to Virtue ethics in journalism, an occupation’s purpose provides its moral justification. Although there is some sort of interwoven relationship between media and government as the media serves as a communication path for transparency and accountability of government, the presenting of various facts by the media may be conflicting with the law and also other values such as public interest, privacy and fantasy resulting in ethical quandary. The field of journalism ethics concerns itself with the standards of behavior and the quality of justifications used to defend controversial journalistic decisions. Ethics rarely provide clear answers about the best way to handle quandaries rather it helps us to highlight morally relevant issues and come up with optimal defensible decisions. Many news outlets and journalism associations have embraced ethics codes that itemize the various duties that responsible journalists must carry out: duty to serve the public, duty to scrutinize centers of power, duty to be transparent and accountable as possible. But the “third way” in ethics, virtue theory has recently been gathering prominence in journalism practice as well. This approach focuses instead on identifying virtues and articulating how those virtues ought to be manifested in our lives. A virtue ethicist, Rosalind Hursthouse argued that the virtues “are not excellences of character, not traits that, by their very nature make their possessors good and result in good conduct.” Rather, she said we must remember the “Aristotelian idea that each of the virtues involves practical wisdom, the ability to reason correctly about practical matters.” Aristotle described ethics, not as tools to achieve what he said should be our broader aim: “the good life,” or eudaimonia.

Standards of excellence and obedience to rules contribute to the common good regardless of who receives them. Media professionals, deliberately informing their work with the “standards of excellence” that are attached to their “practices”, are able to deliver public goods such as providing information and analysis that enables the public to participate in a vigorous democratic life. As Borden (2007) summarized, “an occupation’s purpose provides it with moral justification, from a virtue perspective, if it can be integrated into a broader conception of what is good for humans”

Hill disobeyed ESPN’S rules regarding social media at the first and second count and the consequences were inevitable. While also putting into consideration the fact that no set of rules can cover all the different scenarios that exist on social platforms, the degree to which individuals internalize moral principles or virtues into their very self-identities is relative to the extent at which those principles reflexively inform daily behavior. This is best referred to as cultivating a habitual disposition to do the right thing regardless of supposed norms, rights or obligations. Some might have argued that Hill was first a citizen and had the right to freedom of speech, virtue and moral character cannot be overlooked just because of that.  Virtues involve practical wisdom and the ability to reason correctly as stated earlier and Jemele Hill did not apply this when handling her social media activity. The idea of moral commitment is an important concept that gives one the ability to make fine-grained decisions among similar situations and to thoughtfully respond with just the right mix of appraisals, beliefs and behavior that still reflect a broader of that moral commitment. Jemele focused on duty ethics at the expense of virtue ethics though they should go hand in hand.

 

CONCLUSION

Hill was suspended after which their revised social media guidelines were released. The previous version of the policy mentioned only the broader ESPN universe as related to not publishing confidential material. It stated, “The presentation should be thoughtful and respectful. We should avoid personal attacks and inflammatory rhetoric.” It also read, “Prior to engaging in any form of social networking dealing with sports, you must receive permission from your supervisor. Personal Web sites and logs that contain sports content or ESPN marks are not permitted.” While the changes of the policy were not massive, the instincts of those who put them together seemed right. Their drawing of their journalists’ attention to thinking more broadly about the impact of their personal comments on social media platforms makes sense. And their removal of full-on approval seemed much more feasible since journalists were not expected in the actual sense to stop, take a breath and determine whether posting was a good idea or not. Jemele’s tweets, Donald Trump is a white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself with other white supremacists.” and “Trump is the most ignorant, offensive president of my lifetime. His rise is a direct result of white supremacy. Period.” could be referred to as; “Personal attack and Rhetoric”. After this incidence, one would think that Jemele Hill would take into cognizance of the fact that her personal banter on social media would reflect on ESPN, but she still tweeted a response to Jerry Jones and violated ESPN’s social media guidelines the second time. The immediacy of media technology tempts journalists to post, share and verify later—often at the cost of their long term credibility; this Hill fell for.  Her suspension would serve as a deterrent to others who do not take the idea of ethical virtues serious. Hopefully, Jemele would learn to act appropriately in the face of similar future occurrences and avoid being totally dismissed from her professional duties.    

 

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