The Silha Center hosted a broad spectrum of events in March and April 2010. Topics covered included crime in the virtual world, the effects of corporate public relations, and the health of journalists themselves as well as the journalism industry.
Speakers Discuss Criminalizing Virtual World Conduct in the Real World
At a Silha Center Spring Forum on March 31, 2010, Mary Horvath, an FBI Senior Computer Forensic Examiner, issued a stern warning about the lack of privacy in the digital age. "I pretty much can get access to your entire life, especially when you put your whole life on Facebook or MySpace," Horvath said at the outset of the forum.
Horvath was joined by Dick Reeve, General Counsel/Chief Deputy District Attorney for computer crimes in Denver, Colo., and Stephen Cribari, a criminal and constitutional law professor at the University of Minnesota Law School. Attendees filled the Murphy Hall Conference Center at the University of Minnesota School of Journalism and Mass Communication at an event titled "Criminal Conduct in the Virtual World: of Avatars and Evidence."
Horvath and Reeve used their experience as law enforcement officials to frame a discussion on whether acts such as theft, rape and murder that constitute crimes in the real world should also be considered crimes when committed by user-controlled avatars in the virtual world.
An avatar is a three-dimensional digital persona users create in online games such as Second Life, a virtual world run by Linden Lab, which is headquartered in San Francisco and has employees across the globe. Users can create avatars that resemble their real-world selves, or craft alternate identities. Horvath said that some users become so attached to these digital personas that they live vicariously through their avatars.
To illustrate the potential for virtual world conduct constituting a crime, Horvath cited the "rape" of a female avatar. "Where does the real physical human being go for legal relief? Who can she blame and who can she punish for that?" Horvath asked.
"Remember, some of these people, this is their world now. This can be psychologically harming to somebody whose world this became. As it is, they can feel like they've really been raped. I can only imagine."
Users can navigate Second Life for free, but they also have the option to pay real-world money in exchange for various privileges, such as purchasing land or investing in a virtual world stock exchange. This virtual economy accounted for more than $500 million dollars in user-to-user transactions in 2009, according to a March 31, 2010 Linden Lab news release. Businesses also use the virtual world to advertise their products to users.
The expenditure of real-world money complicates the debate over whether to prosecute users for the actions of their avatars. Horvath mentioned the example of one avatar robbing a bank or ATM in the virtual world to steal another avatar's money, which constitutes the real-world investment of a user. "You just robbed what effectively is my U.S. money, even though it's in Linden dollars," Horvath said. "Now who do I call? Who investigates the fact that you just ripped me off?"
Reeve said he believes such a theft should be considered a crime because it has financial consequences in the real world. "As a prosecutor, I look at that and say, that's a very simple question for me. That's a computer, and the virtual world was used to perpetuate a crime," Reeve said.
Cribari explained that prosecuting the "rape" or "murder" of an avatar presents problems in proving criminal intent unless laws are redefined to account for the results of such conduct in the virtual world. "Is it a game, and what are the cultural implications of recognizing that the virtual world isn't a virtual world, but a real world?" Cribari asked. "Do we step over that line or do we say, 'Look, you're paying a price to play a game and if you lose your money, you've lost your money just as if you're playing a game?'"
Reeve pointed out that deciding whether to criminalize the actions of avatars involves making subjective societal judgments that may vary among generations. He presented the hypothetical situation of a man who creates an avatar resembling his ex-girlfriend and then establishers a scenario where the man invites the woman to view herself being serially raped in the virtual world.
"Is that criminal conduct? Is that tortious conduct? Is that intentional affliction of emotional distress in a tort theory? What is that?" Reeve asked. "I don't know."
Law enforcement officials also face some practical limitations in attempting to prosecute virtual world conduct. When users move their avatars to foreign countries, information for that avatar is then stored on a server in that country. Horvath said this reality creates obstacles in both locating an avatar and securing search warrants within foreign countries.
"We're traditionally used to the information being right here on the computer in your house or on the cell phone on your hip. We're not used to your information being on a server in Korea, nor thinking ahead of time about it being over in Korea," Horvath said. Reeve pointed out that it may be difficult to justify using real-world law enforcement resources to investigate virtual world conduct.
Spring Ethics Forum Focuses on the Influence of Corporate Public Relations
"In celebrity culture, we destroy what we worship," said Chris Hedges, the featured speaker at the Silha Center's 2010 Spring Ethics Forum, titled "The Propaganda State: The Inordinate Influence of PR on the Press." Using Michael Jackson as his primary example, Hedges described how Jackson's popularity, driven by corporate public relations personnel, may have resulted in his premature death. "He became a commodity product," Hedges said.
The Forum was co-sponsored with the Minnesota Journalism Center, the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, and the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Minnesota, and was held April 15, 2010 at the University of Minnesota's School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
Hedges, a veteran reporter who served for eight years as the Middle East bureau chief of The New York Times, where he shared the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Journalism, is a senior fellow at the Nation Institute, the Anschutz Distinguished Fellow at Princeton University, and the author of nine books.
His thesis was that corporations have gained an undue influence on modern society, especially in politics and the media. "Corporate money drives the media commentary," Hedges said, an effect that he warned would inevitably result in "neo-feudalism."
Political power goes to those most effective at marketing their "brands," Hedges said, pointing out that Advertising Age magazine named Barack Obama the "marketer of the year" in 2008.
Any achievement in today's media marketplace, Hedges said, requires the influence of corporate public relations staff. Referring to Jackson's success, Hedges argued that "it wouldn't have been possible without the handlers."
At the end of his presentation, Hedges addressed the role of the news media, which he said has suffered under corporate ownership. "Commercialization of the American Press was a Faustian bargain," Hedges said, asserting that news programming has become largely driven by corporate interests. "Large portions of the United States have become invisible."
Hedges also criticized America's celebrity culture as substituting popularity for quality journalism. As an example, he said that he considered "CBS Evening News" host Katie Couric to be a celebrity, not a journalist, and that the trend towards celebrity worship and the corporate news agenda would only worsen in the near future.
"I don't know how we're going to sustain journalism," Hedges said.
Authors Make the Case for a Subsidized Press at Book Signing
The practice and profession of journalism is in peril, argued Robert McChesney and John Nichols in a presentation at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota on March 25, 2010. The only viable solution, the two argued, was public funding for the American news media.
Their presentation, "The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution that will Begin the World Again," was co-sponsored by the Minnesota Journalism Center and the University of Minnesota Bookstore.
McChesney and Nichols began with a discussion of the current economic state of news journalism, emphasizing the steady decline in jobs and pay for journalists. The ratio of traditional journalists to public relations professionals in the United States is currently 1-to-4, said Nichols, a figure he claimed was unprecedented in countries comparable to the United States by political and demographic measures. As a result of the worsening economic situation for journalists, the quality and quantity of real journalism is diminishing. This cycle, asserted Nichols, creates a misinformed and unengaged electorate.
According to McChesney, the solution to the problems facing modern American journalism is already in place throughout Europe and Canada. Government-funded public media, subject to public scrutiny and oversight, could fill the gaps in local coverage that have resulted from massive media conglomeration since the Telecommunications Act of 1996 deregulated media ownership. McChesney suggested that market factors could still be applied to maintain quality standards. For example, he suggested that Americans could be given "media vouchers" to give to the news outlets of their choice.
Arkansas Professor Addresses Emotional Demands of Journalism at Silha Center Special Presentation
Journalism is a stressful profession, Professor Don Judges told students, faculty, staff, and members of the general public at an event titled "Journalist Impairment: Identifying and Managing the Emotional Demands of Life in Journalism," held at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota on March 31, 2010. It is only becoming more stressful due to "the changing landscape" of the media, he said.
Judges, a psychology and law professor at the University of Arkansas, explained that journalists face constant pressure that can lead to detrimental psychological effects. Judges cited factors such as looming deadlines, the stress of the economic climate, hazardous reporting environments, and repeated exposure to tragedy and disaster.
According to Judges, these combined pressures can lead to burnout, depression, alcohol and drug abuse, relationship problems, and even Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Because of these effects, younger journalists and women are at high risk for leaving the profession, Judges said.
Pessimism is toxic, Judges explained, saying that "if you view life as your enemy, it will hurt you." But optimism, he said, could sustain journalists, and self-awareness is the first step to breaking the cycle of hopelessness that can ambush a stressed person. Motivating yourself and cultivating empathy and social competence can empower people to remain capable as journalists. "The master aptitude," said Judges, is emotional self-regulation, which is essential to success.
All Silha Center activities are made possible by a generous endowment from the late Otto Silha and his wife, Helen.
- JACOB PARSLEY
SILHA FELLOW AND BULLETIN EDITOR
- CARY SNYDER
SILHA RESEARCH ASSISTANT
- SARA CANNON
SILHA CENTER STAFF