Thursday, July 14, 2011

A Summer of Case Studies

Two major stories -- the Casey Anthony trial/verdict and the phone hacking scandal out of the U.K. -- make this seem a target rich summer when it comes to ethical case studies in journalism.

But are they of any real use for those of us who teaching journalism in the U.S.?

I don't think so.

Let's take the phone hacking story first.  It's more of a Brit tabloid thing, this hacking into mobile phone mailboxes.  Yes, we're nearly as celebrity crazed in the U.S. as they are in Great Britain, but the phone hack is a harder to pull off here and also we don't have quite the tabloid environment, despite TMZ and National Enquirer, found across the Atlantic.  Maybe some of the News Corp's U.S. properties such as Fox News or the New York Post will get caught up in the storm, but I doubt it.  Short of that, this makes the phone hacking story an interesting one when teaching a basic or advanced news reporting class, but one hard to connect to the day-to-day activities of most working journalists. 

In fairness, there are aspects to invasion of privacy that may make for good material.  And I suspect I could take the phone hacking and extend it to social media in some way, looking for parallels for the students to grab at and understand, but even that may be a reach.

Extreme cases are fun to discuss in class, but in the end their utility is meager.

Speaking of extreme, we also have the Casey Anthony trial and the verdict and this Sunday her release from jail.  Now this is the kind of case we may can use when discussing how not to go overboard with a story (hear that, Nancy Grace?).  About the only real lesson here, for basic or even advanced students, is to avoid taking a side in a major trial and using sources on air or in a story that perpetuate your point of view.  Also, it raises questions about feeding public anger, which is what cable TV now seems to be all about.

This one has more utility.  Only a little, but more.

The case allows me the prof to talk about covering controversial trials, about how to handle sensitive information, but most of all the Anthony story is a case study in how a media frenzy can begin, can be fueled by TV talking heads, and how it's hard to keep the news proportional while also being comprehensive.  The power of social media, particularly Twitter, fits well here.

All in all, though, the trial/verdict is not a terribly useful case study for reporting classes.  Most reasonable people know the coverage, especially on cable television and most especially on Headline News, went off into journalistic Neverland.  At best, other than some social media aspects, a brief mention in class as a cautionary tale is about all the Anthony case deserves.

Unless of course my students want to be the next Nancy Grace.  Then I'll ask them to leave the room.

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