Carson King Lesson More about Internet than Ethics

Carson King held up a beer sign during a mega-media sporting event, and his life changed overnight. He rode the media blitz from icon to apology. In the age of the machine, the same thing can happen to anyone at the right time in the wrong viral place.

A 24-year-old man held up a sign asking for beer money at the widely televised ISU-Iowa ESPN Game Day media extravaganza. It was a thunderous day, with multiple delays at Jack Trice stadium. For many tailgaters, beer was a good remedy to wait out the weather.

ESPN was crawling with media trying to create content before, during and after downpours, and King appeared in a short segment.

Then the Internet happened, and money started flowing as freely as tap into King’s online Venmo account.

As the funds grew to about $600, King did the right thing: He said he would give that money to University of Iowa Children’s Hospital.

Seeing endorsement opportunities, as well as compassion in a thoughtful young man, Busch Light and Venmo promised to match whatever funds King raised.

He ended up raising a lot, more than $1 million.

Mediated Brands 

King’s own brand metamorphosed swiftly on Internet. In the course of a few weeks, he became a celebrity–“Iowa Legend”–with his likeness on a beer can.

beer

His story was local as well as national. The Des Moines Register would do a “profile,” a genre that explores the background and character of a newsmaker.

According to the journalism website, Poynter, “The subjects of profiles could be people who are on the brink of change, unusual people, people in the community others may have wondered about but never bothered to notice. …”

That post was written in 2002, and the world changed since then, although many journalists as well as news consumers don’t quite realize how much. Internet is immediate, global, and more powerful than anyone thinks … until they have a Carson King experience.

This is how his story morphed from compassion to apology.

In a routine background check, the Register did what employers, college admissions officers, parents and yes, college students do: It looked at King’s past social media posts.

There were two racist ones posted when he was 16. The reporter asked him about them, and King didn’t immediately remember them. Internet remembered them, and now the world would probably see them.

So King did what many public relations practitioners would have advised: Get in front of the story.

He composed this statement:

Then he appeared on WHOtv.

Only he did it before the Register went to press.

The newspaper had planned to reference the tweets in a few sentences at the end of the profile, which largely would have focused on his positive impact. (Here is the published piece.) Some might say, had King not got in front of the story, those sentences would have been dismissed or not even read in a social media era where users typically are too distracted to read to the end of any story online or in print.

That also is an Internet effect.

Media Ethics

A post by Register Editor Carol Hunter explained what was happening behind the scenes. (We don’t know if the reporter found the offensive tweets and went to an editor for advice, or whether he contacted King directly, setting off a chain reaction.) Debates arose in the newsroom with pros and cons and provocative questions. (Note:  Also, a second Hunter follow-up was posted on 9/26/19 noting policy changes. The reporter in question no longer works at the Register.)

Here is an excerpt from Hunter’s initial explanation:

Should that material be included in the profile at all? The jokes were highly inappropriate and were public posts. Shouldn’t that be acknowledged to all the people who had donated money to King’s cause or were planning to do so?

The counter arguments: The tweets were posted seven years ago, when King was 16. And he was remorseful. Should we chalk up the posts to a youthful mistake and omit the information?

As Hunter acknowledged in her post, reasonable people could disagree with the decision to question King about the tweets and to include them in the story.

That’s a media ethics question in the grey area in which the Register found itself. The backlash was swift and severe, largely focusing on the newspaper as symbol of demonizing media. However, as Hunter knew, there was no clear answer, given the circumstances: only choices and consequences.

Ramifications were immediate. Anheuser-Busch terminated its relationship with King and issued this statement:

Carson King had multiple social media posts that do not align with our values as a brand or as a company and we will have no further association with him. We are honoring our commitment by donating more than $350,000 to the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics.

From a media ethics perspective, we might focus on two standards in the decision to withhold or publish information about King’s tweets:

NOT TO PUBLISH

  • Fairness: The tweets had little to do with the story about charity and compassion.
  • Do No Harm: Mentioning the tweets would cause harm to the primary beneficiary: Children’s Hospital.

TO PUBLISH

  • Transparency: The tweets were public.
  • Public Information: Donors had a right to know.

A media ethicist might have advised the Register to omit past juvenile social media posts in profiles of adults unless those posts were indisputably associated with the topic of a story. A teen tweet about violence in a story about violence, for instance, would fall in that category.  Conversely, the newspaper could have done a positive profile about King without mentioning the tweets and scheduled a follow-up story at a later date, perhaps with a spin on how character develops with education and experience.

But that was preempted, too. Something or someone triggered a series of events, prompting King to get out in front of the story.

Oddity and Odyssey  

The Carson King episode was a journalism anomaly.  Several coincidences occurred that contributed to this story. It rained. It was Game Day. ESPN and its audience were bored. Corporate branders saw opportunities in a photogenic man who matched its target demographics and psychographics. And, of course, his last name happened to be “King,” as in “King of Beers,” the Budweiser logo.

And then something happened that showed everyone just how powerful social media can be when we fail to practice discretion. People began scouring the reporter’s past tweets and found offensive ones there, too.

Now the story was national. The Washington Post picked it up in a article titled “Iowa reporter who found a viral star’s racist tweets slammed when critics find his own offensive posts.

The Post published this Twitter screenshot.

But that’s not the story either.

Concerning Carson King, many corporate influencers have said, done or disseminated outrageous, hideous, hurtful, stereotypical, profane or slanderous tweets and posts. But there is a key difference between them and King. They deleted them.

King never thought he would be a national celebrity. So he didn’t delete.

In his statement, he writes:

It was just 10 days ago that I was a guy in the crowd holding a sign looking for beer money on ESPN Game Day. Since then – so much has happened. Especially when I announced all of the money would be donated to the Stead Family Children’s Hospital in Iowa City. Thousands of people have donated and today the account is at 1.14 million dollars. Much of this has happened thanks to social media – it has the power to bring people together for a common good.

It also can make your life very public.

Celebrity icon Andy Warhol prophesied in 1968 that everyone in the future “will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” In the Internet age that phrase might be “world-famous and then infamous in 15 minutes.”

King’s fame happened because of omnipresent Internet responsible for more than a million dollars in charitable giving as well as to his rapid fall from corporate grace.

Convention and Intervention

Despite the complexities and anomalies of the Carson King saga, the audience recognized the familiar journalism pattern: Elevate someone to celebrity status overnight, then cut the person down and find a scapegoat. Tag the Register for that.

An online petition appeared on change.org, demanding the Register issue a front-page apology to Carson King. Its goal is 200,000 digital signatures, and at this writing, some 157,761 had done just that. (In fact, in the short span of composing this paragraph, more than a dozen more signatures appeared.)

Gov. Kim Reynolds has proclaimed Saturday, Sept. 28, “Carson King Day in Iowa.” You can read the proclamation here.

The celebration is apt in many ways, with one caveat. King’s juvenile offensive tweets must have been especially hurtful for any peer or person of color reading them. To be sure, teens say all manner of offensive things, and many later realize the errors of their derogatory ways. Often, teachers or role models will have intervened to explain the history and hurt of racism, treating infractions as teachable moments about the importance of inclusion.

King said as much in his statement:

Thankfully, high school kids grow up and hopefully become responsible and caring adults. I think my feelings are better summed up by a post from just 3 years ago:

“Until we as a people learn that racism and hate are learned behaviors, we won’t get rid of it. Tolerance towards others is the first step.” — July 8, 2016

Education is the instructor in cases like this, and that also applies to Internet.

Interpersonal Divide continues to advocate for media and technology literacy, as early as middle school and continuing through college. We all have to confront the new digital realities shaping social norms because of the speed and viral propensity of the web.

That lesson applies to journalism. Withhold today what you cannot decide for tomorrow. Re-evaluate ethical standards established in the age of print and decide if they still apply in the age of the machine.

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