Category: Uncategorized

Bourdain film illustrates ethical issues with voice cloning, media manipulation

by Michael Bugeja, Iowa Capital Dispatch
July 24, 2021

In a new documentary about the late celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, he is heard discussing his life shortly before committing suicide. “You are successful, and I am successful, and I’m wondering: Are you happy?”

Questions arose about Bourdain’s voice. He wrote those words in an email, and people were wondering how the filmmaker purloined an audio clip.

As it happened, director Morgan Neville used “deep fake” technology in his film, “Roadrunner.” He resorted to voice cloning because he could not find adequate and authentic audio for the story he wanted to tell.

In journalism, we used to call this lazy.

When movie critics learned about this, they panned Neville’s use of deep fakes, currently being deployed to deceive viewers on social and multimedia, especially in political ads.

Neville claimed he was not manipulating the audience. “We can have a documentary ethics panel about it later,” he quipped.

We can do so now.

The term “documentary ethics” is oxymoronic. Neville believes deep-fake technology is a storytelling tool. It’s not. It’s manipulative.

I have no doubt the technique in due time it will become acceptable. We’re living in a post-truth age.

In one generation, media ethics went from differentiating between interviewing a source in person or by telephone to via email, tweet or text message, and now to deep fakes.

Neville argues that he wasn’t putting words into Bourdain’s mouth; he was just inserting audio.

That is true, in a sense; but it ignores the importance of tone. You can ask, “Are you happy?” in an introspective or infuriated voice.

Voice cloning not only is being used by filmmakers, but cybercriminals, too.

In one case, a chief executive officer’s voice was cloned to trick him into transferring $243,000 into the criminal’s account.

Cybercrimes are classic examples of manipulation, defined as attacking a person’s mental and emotional states, thereby creating an imbalance of power to gain control, benefits or privileges at the expense of the victim.

An encyclopedia entry, “The Ethics of Manipulation,” identifies three types:

  • Manipulation that bypasses reason, such as subliminal advertising or hypnosis.
  • Manipulation as trickery, such as advertising that promotes false claims or induces false beliefs.
  • Manipulation as pressure, such as scam phone calls warning about costs if demands are not heeded.

Watch out for deep fakes in political ads

Voice cloning has the potential to combine all manipulative types. You can anticipate its wide use in mid-term election political advertisements.

Edward Bernays, the so-called father of public relations, wrote this ominous quote in 1928:

“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, and our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. … It is they who pull the wires that control the public mind.”

Little did Bernays realize his methods would be used years later by dictators.

In “The Manipulation of the American Mind,” Richard Gunderman, Chancellor’s professor of medicine at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis, writes that Bernays used fear to sell products. “For Dixie cups, Bernays launched a campaign to scare people into thinking that only disposable cups were sanitary.” Bernays even founded the Committee for the Study and Promotion of the Sanitary Dispensing of Food and Drink.

“Bernays sought to turn citizens and neighbors into consumers who use their purchasing power to propel themselves down the road to happiness,” Gunderman writes.

If we change the words “purchasing power” to “votes,” we can see how manipulation plays a role in political advertising.

The news magazine, The Week, compiled some of the most manipulative political ads of the 2020 election.

One of the worst was titled “Meet Joe Biden’s Supporters,” showing riots and mayhem associated with Black Lives Matter and culminating with hellish music and a maniacal laugh.

Biden hit back, turning the tables on former President Trump in an advertisement titled, “You’ll Never See Me Again.”

The ad is only 10 seconds and shows Trump speaking at one of his rallies, stating, “If I lose to him, I don’t know what I am going to do. I will never speak to you again. You’ll never see me again.” Then we hear: “I’m Joe Biden, and I approved this message.”

To understand manipulation on a personal level, take an inventory of your deepest desires, convictions, fears, values and beliefs. Manipulators target them in a strategy to make you do something you ordinarily would not do.

When you respond emotionally to a political ad, positively or negatively, remember you are the target voter. You can still hold your political beliefs while acknowledging that the video, audio and voice is manipulating you.

This is true even if that voice is one you recognize and admire— Biden, Nancy Pelosi, Kamala Harris, Trump, Mike Pence, Mitch McConnell — because you no longer can trust what you see or hear.

Literally.

Iowa Capital Dispatch is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Iowa Capital Dispatch maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Kathie Obradovich for questions: info@iowacapitaldispatch.com. Follow Iowa Capital Dispatch on Facebook and Twitter.

You can’t be a truth-seeker if you’re also a liar

Trump’s claim that he won the 2020 election is one lie in a culture of falsehood. Media ethics students learn they, too, often fail at truth-telling.

In this Jan. 12, 2021, file photo President Donald Trump walks to board Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington. In a fall 2019 and early spring 2020 media ethics class at Greenlee School Journalism and Communication at Iowa State University, Michael Bugeja and his students studied lies, deceit and secrecy in the first impeachment trial of Donald Trump (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)

By: Michael Bugeja, copyright 2021, Poynter Institute

In 1996, 77 college students kept a diary of their social interactions every day for a week, noting all the lies that they told, whom they told them to, and their reasons for telling them.

According to an article titled “Lying in Everyday Life” published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, students told two lies per day on average. That translated into about one lie in every three encounters. In general, women told as many lies as men, but those tended to differ in substance, with women tending to lie to make people feel better and men to make themselves look better.

When that article appeared in June 1996, I had been doing a similar diary exercise for about six years in my media ethics classes at Ohio University. Students received these instructions:

  1. In a personal journal, for a period of one week, keep track of all the white lies, half-truths and falsehoods that you say or indicate to others. Under each incident or item, briefly note the immediate, future or possible consequences of the lie.
  2. Keep track of all the white lies, half-truths and falsehoods that others say or indicate to you. Under each incident or item, briefly note the immediate, future or possible consequences of the lie.
  3. Keep track of times when you wanted to tell a white lie, half-truth or falsehood … but caught yourself and told the truth or declined to answer the question (doing so in a polite, discreet, or otherwise appropriate way).
  4. In your personal journal, write about what you learned from the exercise.

I continued this exercise through my tenure at OU, ending in 2003. On average, students told between two to six lies per day underestimating the consequences, caught others in a lie every other day dispensing swift consequences, and were tempted to lie but told the truth about once or twice a week. Essentially, that meant students were interacting in an environment of lies as many went undiscovered with liars seemingly escaping consequences.

For the rest of the article, click here or visit: https://www.poynter.org/ethics-trust/2021/you-cant-be-a-truth-seeker-if-youre-also-a-liar/

Digital data is not a shortcut to fact-based truth

By Michael Bugeja, IOWA CAPITAL DISPATCH

It’s a myth that data provide us with “undiscovered truth.” (Creative Commons photo via Pxhere)

Before tackling algorithmic “truth” — data that affirm some views over others — ethicists typically assert that actual, factual truth should be the cornerstone of any value system.

If you rely on machines for perception, you’ll end up seeing or believing things that are not there and overlooking ones that are.

To be sure, perception varies from person to person based on experience, education, culture, religion or another variable, but truth is a constant. Many of humanity’s woes emanate from mistaking one’s perception as reality.

Truth is often relative, although there are a few universal tenets. They include such absolutes as it is wrong to lie, to steal, to humiliate others and right to be generous, responsible and honorable. Nevertheless, the pursuit of fact-based truth sharpens perception, expands awareness and deepens conscience.

Truth is subject to proof, without which we have opinion. And while everyone is entitled to that, machines are thought to transcend any human point of view.

That, of course, is a myth.

The myth of ‘undiscovered truth’ from data

Technologists have embraced that myth for decades. They claim digital data helps discover hitherto unexplored truths.

The problem with that is how data are used, especially in social media, and interpreted by users whose perception is skewed.

Case in point: At 4 a.m. on Nov. 4, as presidential votes were being tallied in multiple states, the polling website fivethirtyeight.com posted this chart showing a huge spike in the Wisconsin vote for Joe Biden. In actuality, all that happened was the city of Milwaukee uploaded absentee ballots, which had taken time to verify and assemble.

This Facebook post, which garnered a mere 38 reactions, was shared 77 times, claiming someone stealthily added votes to tilt the tide to Biden. Others picked up the deduction. An Instagram post intimated an illegal vote dump and conspiracy. Twitter erupted. Within hours, President Trump retweeted the false narrative to his 89 million followers.

By then, news organizations were covering allegations. Soon talking heads took over — some Democratsome Republican — in disputing or affirming the now mysterious early morning pro-Biden lead.

In the months that followed, this and related voter fraud charges made their way through Wisconsin courts to the U.S. Supreme Court, which finally on March 8 declined to hear the case.

Keep in mind that this is technological — not political — commentary. You may dispute that. After all, social media assumes every example, every utterance, should be viewed through the prism of divisive politics.

If you want to cast blame, level it at how we receive and cipher information.

Big data, bigger lies

In an article titled “Algorithms and data construct ‘truth,’ not discover it,” artificial intelligence expert Kalev Leetaru debunks the idea that algorithms adjust for human bias with “pristine mathematical perfection that captures the world as it is rather than the world biased humans would like.”

Unfortunately, he notes, the world depicted by data is especially prejudiced. Eventually, people realize this. But when governments and organizations do, they manipulate data to replace algorithmic “truth” with “the preordained outcome they desire.”

The result is mass obfuscation of reality.

The Eticas Foundation, which analyzes technological bias in the interest of public debate, acknowledges that “the public largely believes that machines are neutral arbiters.” However, the foundation questions whether algorithms “amplify and extend” discrimination prevalent in society.

In that vein, a recent study finds that algorithms ingest unchecked information that engages people interactively, often via social media, further eroding truth. People then base decisions on the biased data, which algorithms also gather, leading to increasingly unreliable information.

Machine vs. humane values

This above effect is not new. In fact, George Washington — purported never to tell a lie (a historic fabrication) — believed authority figures bamboozled citizens by “concealment of some facts, & the exaggeration of others, (where there is an influence) to bias [a] well-meaning mind — at least for a time.”

His remedy? “Truth will ultimately prevail where pains are taken to bring it to light.”

To this day, that remains the solution, which I have documented since 2004 in my Oxford University Press books, the latest titled “Interpersonal Divide in the Age of the Machine” (2017).

Given the time we spend on social media, now more than two hours per day (apart from other screen time), we have replaced humane values with machine ones. They include:

  • Importance of self over others.
  • Boredom over attentiveness.
  • Oversharing over privacy.
  • Entertainment over knowledge.
  • Distraction over concentration.
  • Incivility over empathy.
  • Affirmation over information.
  • Belief over fact.

If you want to change perception so that it is closer to reality, just reverse the aforementioned tenets. Make others as important as yourself. Be attentive. Protect privacy. Focus. Be empathic, civil. Seek knowledge and fact-based information from a variety of trusted sources.

If you do, as George Washington promised, the truth will come to light.

Michael Bugeja is the author of “Living Media Ethics” (Routledge/Taylor & Francis) and “Interpersonal Divide in the Age of the Machine” (Oxford Univ. Press). He is a regular contributor to Iowa Capital Dispatch and is writing a series of columns on the topic of “Living Ethics.”

Reviving awe during the pandemic

We hear so little in the news to uplift us, but there are everyday wonders above, below and among us.

Michael Bugeja, Guest Columnist, Des Moines Register

On Feb. 24, an American Airlines pilot in route to Phoenix saw an unidentified flying object whiz by at enormous speed, prompting him to radio, “Do you have any targets up here? We just had something go over the top of us that — I hate to say this — looked like a long cylindrical object.”

A blogger accidently intercepted the communication, uploaded to YouTube.

But the incident barely made news. Consumed with the usual journalism fare, we heard about Capitol security officers to testify before Congress, Joe Biden to fight climate change, Donald Trump to speak at a Conservative convention, and Cabinet nominees to be confirmed.

One wonders how journalism would cover an encounter of the third kind with a big-eyed tiny-mouthed oval-headed visitor foretelling a wondrous future for humankind. Would CNN and Fox News still lead with analyses affirming worst suspicions about Biden and Trump to fervent target audiences?

This op ed is dedicated to rekindling awe in short supply because of COVID-19 and divisive politics in a post-presidential election year.

FOR THE REST OF THE ARTICLE, click here or visit: https://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/opinion/columnists/iowa-view/2021/03/07/coronavirus-pandemic-stress-we-need-revive-our-awe/688936900

Understanding journalism (or its absence) in the Age of Conspiracy

Social critics claim to know why conspiracy theories are pervasive but fail to acknowledge the primary reasons: too much internet, too little patience.

The United States Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. was breached by thousands of protesters during a “Stop The Steal” rally in support of President Donald Trump. (zz/STRF/STAR MAX/IPx)

By: Michael Bugeja

From Area 51 aliens and Bigfoot sightings to deep state cabals and QAnon fanatics, conspiracy groups proliferate content on social media, often eclipsing fact-based news.

There are numerous explanations. Some experts believe conspiracy theories flourish in environments of political or social unrest. They point to former President Donald Trump’s conspiratorial claims of voter fraud fueling the Jan. 6 insurrection.

FOR THE REST OF THE ARTICLE, CLICK HERE OR VISIT: https://www.poynter.org/commentary/2021/understanding-journalism-or-its-absence-in-the-age-of-conspiracy/

How Social Media Has Impacted News Consumption

CLICK HERE OR THE PHOTO BELOW TO GO TO VIDEO

AMES, Iowa — Twitter and Facebook made the unprecedented move to prevent President Donald Trump from posting on their platforms Wednesday following the storming of the U.S. Capitol by his supporters. Social media has the power to unite us, but it can also divide us. Dr. Michael Bugeja, a distinguished professor at Iowa State University’s Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication, discussed the impact of social media during this turbulent time.

Social distancing is teaching Generation Z the limits of a virtual world. A revival of ‘Iowa nice’ could follow.

I thought in 2004 that social media would exhaust and divide us, making us uncivil and even hostile. Now I have hope for young people.

Social distancing is teaching Generation Z the limits of a virtual world. A revival of 'Iowa nice' could follow.

By Michael Bugeja, Iowa View Contributor

Copyright 2020 Des Moines Register

Social distancing, partisan politics and isolation may put an end to the culture of “Iowa nice.” But the emerging generation just might save it.

I have lived most of my life in the Midwest but came to know Iowa nice upon my arrival in 2003 at Iowa State University. Cellphones were in use then; but students mostly kept them in bookbags and said hello to each other and professors on the campus green.

We agreed to disagree most of the time, even on hot-button topics. The Huffington Post blamed that tendency for slower advancement on progressive ideals that once were “the cornerstone of the state.”

There were plenty of sexist, racist, xenophobic and other offensive incidents that undercut belief in Iowa nice.

I experienced that in my Dec. 26, 2006, Register essay titled “Let conscience guide debate on immigration,” noting how President Ronald Reagan viewed the matter. A reader clipped my commentary and penned profanity-laced warnings in the margins: “Why don’t you talk to the people who really know the cost of these rotten, stupid (profane slur) to us taxpayers.”

For the rest of the story, click here or visit: https://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/opinion/columnists/iowa-view/2020/10/02/iowa-nice-could-see-revival-after-covid-19-pandemic/5878712002/

 

Broadcast techniques enhance remote learning

Instead of a tech model, consider a broadcast one with teacher as producer

By Copyright 2020 Poynter

During the spring 2020 semester, when thousands of face-to-face classes went virtual on short notice, some professors dumped lecture notes on educational software and called it a day. Others recorded lectures asynchronously, uploaded them on YouTube, and left it at that.

Many instructors already had websites with posted lectures that students could visit 24/7. Initially, department chairs and deans encouraged students to access these sites as some students lacked home computers with broadband internet and requisite software. It was enough at the time.

Because of the abrupt transition in March, traditional rules for students and faculty also were relaxed, including attendance, proctored exams and even grades, with pass-fail options available.

It was supposed to be temporary.

Then the pandemic in the United States worsened.

By mid-August, universities planning to hold face-to-face classes reversed that decision. Some, including Iowa State University, where I teach media ethics, relegated large classes to the Internet and smaller ones to classrooms with meticulous social distancing regulations.

Students were asked to practice safety precautions after hours and off-campus. It was the new honor code.

Many students violated it, especially on 801 Day (Aug. 1) in Ames, an annual citywide party on the Saturday before school starts.

This video went viral. Then COVID-19 did here.

Ames became the top national hotspot in early September. Iowa State reversed course again. In an Aug. 31 memo, faculty were informed that no one would be forced to teach in-person. Professors had the option to “modify a course’s delivery mode (in-person, hybrid, online or arranged).”

Such reversals safeguard employees and students. But they also often create havoc as professors trade face masks and sanitizers for help webinars and IT support.

Vaccines most likely will not be widely available until late spring or summer next year, according to top infectious disease specialists. That means the spring 2021 semester will look a lot like 2020.

Your online classes do not have to, however, if you prepare for the inevitable.

For the rest of the article, including step-by-step instructions, click here. (Or visit: https://www.poynter.org/educators-students/2020/how-to-use-broadcast-techniques-to-enhance-remote-learning/ )

Social Media and Culture Vulture: Hoaxes Exploit POC

Whenever individuals perpetuate hoaxes in media, others are injured by the lies along with the causes they feigned to advance. This month two academics acknowledged and then apologized for fictive characters they invented–a Black activist and a American Indian #MeTooSTEM anthropologist. Typically social media is used as a vehicle to further the fabrication, especially on YouTube and Twitter. 

In an essay on Medium, titled “The Truth, and the Anti-Black Violence of my Lies,” Jessica Krug, associate professor of history at George Washington University, admitted that she “eschewed my lived experience as a white Jewish child in suburban Kansas City under various assumed identities within a Blackness that I had no right to claim: first North African Blackness, then U.S. rooted Blackness, then Caribbean rooted Bronx Blackness.”

The Daily Beast features an online video and other posts during which Krug identified herself as Jess La Bombelera.

Inside Higher Ed reported neuroscientist BethAnn McLaughlin, a founder of the MeTooSTEM organization, “admitted Tuesday to creating a fake friend on Twitter, running the anonymous account for years and then killing off the persona with a case of teaching-related COVID-19.”

Consumers of media and social media must guard against hoaxes, which play on common fears, desires, convictions, values and cultures of a target audience or clientele. Hoaxers create opportunities to manipulate mainstream and social media by perpetuating:

  • Fear of a certain race, ethnicity, sex, disability, protected or social-class group.
  • Desire to be recognized or compensated for activism, victimization, innovation and contribution on trending topics.
  • Belief that certain people of a particular race, ethnicity, sex, disability or social class are inherently immoral/moral, unintelligent /intelligent, privileged/disadvantaged, etc.
  • Belief in or skepticism about the paranormal.
  • Conviction about political party, candidate, celebrity, religious deity, government policy, entitlement, legal case, etc.

It is important for us to know the various terms used to define these concepts.

Invention happens from within the organization–a reporter fabricates quotations or sources, for instance–and so does not qualify as a hoax. A hoax relies entirely upon manipulation of media by an outside source whose sole goal is to program agendas according to their motives. A culture vulture is an inauthentic person who practices cultural appropriation in an attempt to identify with aspects of another culture and claim it as their own.

Hoaxes harm newsrooms, agencies and organizations because they:

  • Jeopardize personal credibility.
  • Harm corporate brand or non-profit reputation.
  • Expose personal beliefs of journalists and practitioners.
  • Demean, trivialize or exploit cultural beliefs.
  • Cause innocent others irreparable harm.

Harm happens to innocent parties that mistakenly embraced the fictive personae of hoaxes. In the case of a white person claiming to be Black or American Indian, the hoaxer exploits people of color.

Inside Higher Ed called attention to Krug’s author bio in the online magazine RaceBaitr as an “unrepentant and unreformed child of the hood.” The publication retracted Krug’s article and ran this notice on Twitter:

Interpersonal Divide in the Age of the Machine covers how social media is used to perpetuate hoaxes and the damage that can do to fact and truth.

EXCERPT:

Digital Natives have been exposed to untruth their entire lives. They came of age as machines began to correlate at ever-faster speeds in an increasingly data-rich environment. Something else occurred, though. Students no longer could easily find primary sources of information, such as historical documents in libraries, or acquaint themselves with ground-breaking discoveries by world-renowned researchers; now there were multitudes of online sources. Hoaxes. Hacks. Stunts. Pranks. Fraud. Counterfeits. Conspiracy theories. Altered photographs. Doctored records. Viral videos. Facts died in the process. …  Emerging generations soon learned that fact no longer was earned by traditional means, including observation, experiment and examination; accessed information was data-mined, crunched, targeted, vended and downloaded.  Students look to machines for answers because that is all they have known.

Media and technology literacy is important to help students understand the implications of fabrication.

Hoaxes based on appropriated cultures and identities and promulgated on social media continue to afflict society. It is up to us not only to guard against such untruths but also to acknowledge that equality, equity and inclusion are key aspects of the interpersonal experience.

McLaughlin’s fabricated anonymous anthropologist, aka @Sciencing_Bi, not only exploited the Hopi Tribe but fears of teachers returning to the classroom and being exposed to COVID-19. That made her hoax especially harmful.

Racists, sexists, xenophobes, homophobes and supremacists often use baseless claims in hoaxes as fodder for conspiracy theories that may lead to physical and verbal violence, undermining legitimate cases for equity, equality and inclusion.

Democracy, accountability and empowerment: The case for journalism as a gen-ed course

As the availability of journalism jobs decreases, the future of the discipline might depend more on technology and general education

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By Michael Bugeja

Recent racist incidents and police violence have been caught on video, uploaded to social media and viewed millions of times, sparking protests and outrage and accelerating diversity agendas at colleges and universities.

In most of those incidents, the photographer was not a reporter but a bystander or victim of abuse themselves.

Reporters have been arrested in record numbers covering protests associated with the May 25 killing of George Floyd. Some 10,000 mostly peaceful protesters have been arrested and assaulted, too, with many such incidents caught on tape. In an op-ed in the Iowa Capital Dispatch, I ask, “What makes a journalist, the person or the device?”

Increasingly, I argue, it is the device.

In the hands of a journalist, however, or a civilian who knows reporting basics, you double its power.

Power is at the core of controversies about police brutality. Smartphone technology has empowered civilians whose photographs and videos undermine the authority of law enforcement, at times exposing lies, racist agendas and prosecutorial negligence.

Police departments rely on video and security cameras for traffic control, license plate recognition and crime detection. But when the lens is turned on them, they often are less enthusiastic.

Units equipped with body cameras may not release videos to the public or wait months to do so, as was the case in the killing of Elijah McClain. He had done nothing illegal but was wearing a mask while on an errand to pick up iced tea for his brother.

The issue here is accountability and transparency, key tenets of journalism. Reporters are watchdogs over government and file freedom of information requests to foster openness. They embrace the credo of afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted.

These are lessons for everyone.

Everyone is a reporter

In 2005, Wired ran an article with that maxim:

“When man bites dog, who’s the first to report it? Don’t assume it’s your local paper or CNN. These days, ‘our man on the scene’ is often a swarm of amazingly prolific nonprofessionals posting up-to-the-minute stories and pictures of breaking news from their laptops.”

When I first read this, I was skeptical, fearing so-called citizen reporters would undermine the credibility of journalism. A month after the Wired piece, I wrote “The Media World as It Is” for Inside Higher Ed:

“(T)he promise of technology — that it would build social networks, democratize news and generally enhance information in two-way flows — has always hinged on the presumption of readily available and verifiable information. What are the consequences, not only for media, but for academe, when opinion displaces fact?”

I was worried about fake news years before President Donald Trump claimed to have invented that term.

But my own opinion has changed as technology became more powerful, mobile and ubiquitous in the form of a cellphone, especially the iPhone, which first made its debut in 2007.

Apple’s inaugural device included many features we still use every day, such a web browser, email, text messaging, music and video players, and maps applications. It also came with a first-generation YouTube default app.

By 2009, YouTube was registering more than a billion views per day. Now there are more than 2 billion users.

The power of cellphones is epic. We call them smartphones for a reason. The 2020 iPhone 11 Pro Max boasts a 12-megapixel ultra-wide, wide angle, and telephoto lens. Its video is as sharp as any network television camera, with a processor and neural engine capable delivering more than 1 trillion operations per second.

It can capture just about anything within a 120-degree field of view.

The increasing power of cellphones coincided with the decreasing presence of reporters. They are not yet extinct, but on society’s endangered species list. Between 2008 and 2020, U.S. newsrooms lost half of their employees, according to Pew Research Center.

News deserts are popping up all over. As Penelope Muse Abernathy, Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics at the University of North Carolina, notes in News Deserts And Ghost Newspapers: Will Local News Survive?:

Many of the country’s 6,700 surviving papers have become “ghost newspapers” — mere shells of their former selves, with greatly diminished newsrooms and readership. The loss of both journalists and circulation speaks to the declining influence of local newspapers, and raises questions about their long-term financial viability in a digital era.

The choice is obvious: Bemoan journalism’s decline or inspire thousands of opinionated but omnipresent smartphone users. I embrace the latter. They may be the only option left to hold government and law enforcement in check.

Everyone has rights

They also have cellphones. Increasingly they document racism under the genre “while being Black” with African Americans insulted, threatened or arrested doing everyday things. Earlier this year Amy Cooper, a white woman, threw a viral tantrum and called police after a Black birdwatcher in Central Park asked her to leash her dog.

These frequent encounters are becoming more ominous. In June, Mark and Susan McCloskey brandished weapons at protesters who passed their palatial home in St. Louis. Another white couple, Jillian and Eric Wuestenberg, were charged with felonious assault in a parking lot incident during which Jillian pointed a gun at a Black mother and her 15-year-old daughter.

Because cellphones recorded each incident, consequences ensued. Cooper lost her job at an investment corporation and faces misdemeanor charges. Eric Wuestenberg was fired from his support staff position at Oakland University. The McCloskeys were each charged with one count of unlawful use of a weapon.

These videos are deeply troubling, but the one shot by 17-year-old Darnella Frazier was horrifying. Some called the documented killing of George Floyd a state-sponsored execution.

Frazier was on a grocery store run with her 9-year-old cousin when she saw Floyd being arrested. She used her cellphone to capture former police officer Derek Chauvin with his knee on Floyd’s neck, killing him.

Frazier’s lawyer, Seth Cobin, told the BBC, “She felt she had to document it. It’s like the civil rights movement was reborn in a whole new way, because of that video.”

The comment about civil rights reverberates in former reporters of that era. The primary goal in the 1960s and early 1970s was equal treatment in all aspects of society for African Americans. I covered protests by the American Indian Movement whose leaders, including Dennis Banks and Russell Means, sought economic independence, preservation of native culture, autonomy over tribal areas and restoration of stolen lands.

Civil rights and liberties are fundamental aspects of journalism education, which utilizes case law associated with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, among other statutes.

Civil liberties are associated with the Constitution.

Every journalism graduate should know freedoms of the First Amendment — press, speech, religion, assembly and petition — as well as unlawful seizures of the Fourth Amendment and due process of the Fourteenth.

Those liberties are at the heart of a federal lawsuit filed against the city of Minneapolis and its police department for actions against reporters covering George Floyd protests. The suit alleges that reporters were assaulted and arrested by police without cause, “all after these journalists identified themselves and were otherwise clearly engaged in their reporting duties.”

Protesters have the same rights as reporters, according to 42 U.S. Code § 1983, which protects citizens from being deprived of “any rights, privileges or immunities secured by the Constitution.” Any entity violating that law can be held liable in class actions.

Everyone should know that.

Everyone needs gen ed

But does everyone need journalism? I think they do.

And yet, journalism rarely is on the list of required courses in colleges and universities. That has to do in part with the history of general education. Originally, in the early 19th century, it sought to complete the liberal education of the aristocracy. In the 1960s, it attempted to make liberal education more accessible to nontraditional students. The culture wars of the 1980s heightened consciousness about feminism and canons of underrepresented groups. More recently, general education exploded with dozens of courses based on budget models rewarding departmental enrollment.

Nevertheless, gen-ed courses still fall under the usual umbrellas of humanities, social sciences, and math and physical/biological sciences.

Rarely will you find journalism in the mix. Many reporting courses are skill-based and excluded on that basis. Journalism is neither humanities nor social sciences; it is one or the other and sometimes both. Courses like media history clearly fall in the humanities camp; others like public affairs reporting in the social sciences group; and science communication in both.

General education includes survey, theory and concept classes. When viewed in that manner, several journalism courses easily adapt.

They also may be popular. Americans on average use smartphones about 5.4 hours per day. The 16-24 demographic interacts on social media about 3 hours per day. As such, general education students would benefit from courses in news/media literacy, cultivating the next generation of news consumers who possess the ability to spot fake news and dis/misinformation.

A survey course in media law and ethics also might enlighten students about rights, liberties and precedents, all of which are vital for future generations seeking change.

A theory class in world press systems might expand and diversify knowledge. Specialized courses might be popular, too, such as “History of the Black Press,” “Social Media and Change” or “Gone Viral: Videos That Made History.”

Journalism education has focused for decades on graduates securing media jobs. As those decrease, along with enrollments, the future of the discipline might depend more on general education. But the case here is about democracy, accountability, transparency and empowerment.

Without a robust news industry, monitoring government and investigating the corporate elite, our only hope may be in the hands of the people, literally and figuratively.

Michael Bugeja, distinguished professor of journalism at Iowa State University of Science and Technology, teaches media ethics and technology and social change. He can be reached at bugeja@iastate.edu.