Exposed: the severe ethical breaches of superhero journalists

By Ed Yong | June 27, 2012 11:35 am

Journalists have an almost superhuman ability to hold forth on the ethics of our own profession. And yet, despite endless talk about “self-plagiarism” or some such, we have been wilfully blind to the more grievous ethical breaches carried out by revered reporters who cover the so-called “superhero beat”. Perhaps we are unwilling to admit that those who write about truth and justice are the least likely to champion transparency and proper attribution. Here are some examples of the most severe offenders:

Clark Kent

When it comes to journalistic ethics, Mr Kent is not so super after all. He regularly reports about himself without disclosing as much. He deceives his employers by moonlighting during working hours as a doer of derring, leaping his contractual obligations in a single bound. Worst of all, he uses the privileged inside information that he gleans as a journalist for his own personal gain during his extracurricular activities. Here is a man who is faster than a speeding bullet, stronger than a locomotive, and about as transparent as either of those.

Lois Lane

Seemingly strong-willed and single-minded, Ms Lane superficially seems like a role model for aspiring journalists. But closer investigation reveals a troubling tendency to sit on stories that clearly belong in the public domain, especially when it benefits her friends. She has won a Pulitzer for reporting about a source who she has long been romantically involved with – a fact that remains undisclosed. Sympathetic readers will see a journalist torn between personal emotions and professional duty. Others will see a woman who is not just hiding the location of weapons of mass destruction from her readers, but is actually sleeping with one.

Jimmy Olsen

Or to give him his official epithet: “Superman’s pal: Jimmy Olsen.” His sin is in plain view: this hungry, young, and undoubtedly talented photographer has gone native. He has sacrificed his journalistic independence by revering one of his sources as some sort of lofty superhuman god, becoming little more than a snap-happy PR agent to the Man of Self-Promotion. Perhaps “Superman’s Pal” might better serve the public interest as “Superman’s Critical Friend”.

Peter Parker

Imbued with the proportional strength, speed and ethical judgment of a spider, Parker has made a career of taking photos of himself in a mask and selling them to his employers. Some might argue that Parker is merely a symptom of the poor wages awarded to photojournalists, and the intense pressures they face (“I want pictures! Pictures of Spider-Man,” his editor regularly exhorts). Amid such a cutthroat environment, this promising talent has clearly learned that with great power comes great ethical lapses.

Spider Jerusalem

Finally, a journalist whose ethics are beyond reproach. Hound of truth. Scourge of authority. Ignoring the guns and wanton drug use, here is a reporter we can all look up to.

(Inspired by this Daily Mash piece and the fact that discussions of journo ethics can get a touch po-faced. Contributions from Tim Carmody and Dean Burnett via Twitter.)

Comments (23)

  1. I wonder what sort of ethical judgment a spider WOULD have? Probably act utilitarianism.

  2. Everyone forgets Phantom Jack. Uses invisibility to get the story, invades foreign countries, speaks only in cliché.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phantom_Jack

  3. For ethical integrity, we must rely on J. Jonah Jameson. Some of his stories, like with the Green Goblin, were acurate. Though he might have shown bias in the writeup of his son, the werewolf astronaut.

  4. Haddock

    And beyond American superhero comix, there’s always Tintin, unethical boy reporter: http://www.motherjones.com/mixed-media/2012/01/tintin-gonzo-journalist-reporter

  5. Adam Rogers

    You know, this is typical of you self-appointed media “watchdogs” who use the misdeeds of a few journalists to condemn the entire field. Ed, you and your ilk are perfectly happy burning the village in order to save it–in the service of a few clicks to your own site. What about young Billy Batson, boy reporter for WHIZ? He never allows his extracurricular activities as Captain Marvel (or his close personal connections to the wizard Shazam) to get in the way of his city beat reporting. Or Alan Scott, who defied the House Unamerican Activities Committee as head of an early media conglomerate instead of just squishing the committee with a giant hammer made with his powers as Green Lantern? You know who else criticized comic book superheroes with secret identities as journalists? Hitler.

  6. Adam, your unjust attack merely makes my point. One of your two examples – Billy Batson – just happens to have the Wisdom of Solomon tucked away in his temporal lobe, and he would have us believe that he needs to repeatedly electrocute himself in order to release it? I think not. He has used an unfair advantage bestowed via a inappropriately creepy relationship with an older sponsor to further his career. I thought better of you, Adam. Frankly, your shameless apologism makes me wonder if you aren’t in the pay of industry interests, or under the control of a Starro parasite.

  7. “Ed Yong, 2012 recipient of the Lex Luthor Journalism Fellowship”

  8. Adam Rogers

    Ed, I think if you go back and re-read my comment you’ll understand how pitifully misguided you are. Insinuating that my well-documented business relationship with Starro the Conqueror, about which I’ve been completely transparent on my own blog, constitutes being “under control” is an ad hominem attack designed to distract your readers from the issues.

    It’s sad, really, that you, a leader in the field of multimedia journalism, would fall back on old, tired cliches about who has the right to call himself a journalist. Wouldn’t we all be better off if every reporter could rely on the wisdom of Solomon, or Samaritan’s zyxometer? How are these tools any different from Google or Nexis? We should be celebrating the acceleration of superpower-enhanced journalism, not trying to quash it.

  9. Your Correspondent has heard whispers that Rupert Murdoch is bidding for the video rights to the blogwar between Hawk Girl and Wonder Woman over the Anne-Marie Slaughter oeuvre.

  10. Adam, I certainly champion the use of widely and freely available tools in journalism, but I abhor the nepotistic hoarding of power to gain a professional advantage. Billy Batson is not some enterprising young hack. He is the 1%. He is an heir to the Murdoch dynasty if ever their was one. Just look at the company he keeps, like his billionaire friend with the wingsuit and the penchant for punching the mentally ill. How one could fall for such a charade is beyond me. Your brand of faulty reasoning would equate the gathering of a large Twitter following with, for example, acquiring cosmic power from a planet-devouring space god.

  11. Adam Rogers

    Again, Ed, you mistakenly assume that someone’s class, ethnicity, species, super-team status, or secret origin has any impact at all on the journalism that person practices. Are you going to next argue that J’onn J’onz’s shapeshifting abilities and telepathy constitute an unfair advantage over criminals when he uses them in the line of his duties as a police detective? (At least there you’d have a civil rights-based argument.)

  12. Chris

    @Ed Yong

    Don’t feed the trolls!

  13. Wait, are we talking actual trolls like Ulik, or figurative ones?

  14. Brian Too

    Hulk smash bias media!!

  15. Spider Jerusalem is one of my personal heroes.

  16. cde

    Parker gets his comeuppance for that. When Parker revealed himself as spidy during the civil war, JJ sued for fraud.

  17. Richard

    @cde, surely you must be mistaken. If Spider-Man had revealed his secret identity during the Civil War, we would all remember it.

  18. I heartily agree with all of this. In my case, all I have to do is be reminded of my working for SyFy, and I’m immediately eligible for membership in the Red Lantern Corps.

  19. And wait a minute. Spider Jerusalem using source gas? Blasting the President with a bowel disruptor and then reporting on it? Beating the crap out of sources and former sources? Much like “Max Headroom”, I guess “Transmetropolitan” was more evocative of today’s journalism than it was when it was written.

  20. Matthew

    Can journalism, however good the spreading of information to the masses may be, truly be compared to the acts of, say, saving the world from being devoured by some cosmic entity or other, or preventing reality from unraveling? How can we, who are presented with such decisions ony hypothetically, judge those who must make them in real life? And Mr. Yong, if you were given the choice between saving your journalistic integrity and even only potentially saving countless lives, which option would you take?

    And can anyone help me stop speaking in questions? Can no one see how frustrating this is, especially for me?!?

  21. pouncer

    Opinion columnist and radio personality Jack Ryder a.k.a. “the Creeper” never takes a stand on whether or not the so-called hero is sane.

  22. Scott H

    On Clark Kent, you are on point on his failure to report the fact that he is Superman when reporting on himself.

    However, since none of his ‘extracurricular’ activities as the Man of Steel are aimed at any sort of financial or other personal gain for himself, it is simply not the case that he uses privileged inside information for personal gain. It is well established that he does not invite pay or reward for his super-feats, and any monies forced upon him are immediately given to charity. Nor is his ‘moonlighting’ likely of great concern to his bosses at the Daily Planet, for two reasons: one, journalists are primarily judged on their ability to get the story, not the hours put in at the office; and two, in the course of his activities as Superman, he frequently becomes privy to information that in fact enables him to better fulfill his duties to the Planet as a reporter.

    In fact, the real concern here is not so much the flow of information from ‘reporter Clark’ to ‘hero Superman’, but rather the other way around – all the information to which he is privy that other reporters cannot be, due to his contact as Superman with law enforcement, supervillains, and so on, all without any of these individuals knowing they are in fact talking to a reporter; or indeed, simply because he has super-senses and can see and hear things that others cannot, including the location of evidence that will back up his journalistic claims.

  23. Tiago Salviatti

    JJJ ethical? He created a lot of Spider-man’s foes – to sell more copies of the bugle? – like the Scorpion, for instance.
    And the man is really bias.

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