A Proposal for a New Code of Journalistic Ethics

April Wolfe
Nov 11, 2015 · 8 min read

Lives get ruined, writers get a pittance, but what about humanity?

© Diana Robinson

In the past year, I’ve watched as journalists have done as they please in the name of free speech and breaking news and “clicks.” The power of the media in the digital age is Herculean. It’s revealed and unearthed the atrocities acted upon the disenfranchised. It’s begun revolutions in spurts of 140 characters. But it has also, at times, eaten its own tail in hysteria.

I didn’t laugh at Rachel Dolezal. I didn’t write off her story as unimportant, but I also didn’t care to share in the mockery, as I was fully aware the story broke because of two religious fundamentalist parents who’d likely abused their daughter now sought to control her by destroying her life. Is it right for someone to pretend to be black? I don’t think so. Is Rachel Dolezal a criminal whom we should carefully dissect, finding her old emails, digging through her trash, exposing and proudly displaying our investigatory work on countless websites in the name of a “story”? I do not think so. I think we have lost our way. And I am disappointed, as members of the media righteously decry their freedom of speech, while black kids are terrorized on campuses.

“Well, one way to guarantee that the ‘real story’ doesn’t get covered is bullying and muscling out journalists,” people say. But is that what we really believe? Do we truly believe the protestors are the bullies in this situation? People who’ve endured countless moments of fear and shame for the color of their skin, whose stories have been controlled their whole lives and whose stories they are trying to reclaim in protest?

“These students had become fearful of the media, and instead of asking why, we fight them for our right to report on their fear.”

The New York Times and every other publication writes of the white female media professor who tried to block a young photographer, who recorded the confrontation, and chose to post it online. I don’t blame the photographer. He’s been taught that this is the way that we deal with injustice—police videos have led to a heightened awareness of violence against people of color. But this is how we’ve been taught to deal with all instances of injustice. Spurned boyfriends are also privileged to post derogatory or pornographic videos of their exes and feel righteously justified. The latter example is an extreme case of indignant personal injustice, that which serves the individual more than any greater good. But I see shades of this in the new controversy over the media’s freedom of speech.

Should a photographer ever be “muscled”? No. In a perfect world, protestors would feel comfortable with allowing reporters to ask them questions, and everyone would be happy. But that’s not where we are. The media’s aforementioned power has the ability to ruin lives, and no one is more aware of this than black Americans.

“But to understand why the protestors wouldn’t trust this young journalist, you might have to understand the broken system of journalism right now.”

You may say, “This photographer was from ESPN, and his telling of the story is important. It’s not like they’re FOX News or something.” Firstly, he was freelancing for ESPN. Secondly, for a young protestor who’s already endured much stress, knowing who the “good” guys are and who the “bad” guys are is nearly impossible. And the line between a “good” guy and a “bad” guy is indeterminable when the media’s modus operandi is to publish information quickly and ask questions about the ethics after the fact or not at all. To the media in the digital age, everyone is a public figure. Everyone is vulnerable to becoming the subject of the next big breaking “story.” But to understand why the protestors wouldn’t trust this young journalist, you might have to understand the broken system of journalism right now.

Everyone is a journalist. Anyone can post a think-piece on their blog or on Medium—as I am—and call themselves a journalist. More and more online news outlets have set up shop in the past year than I can keep track of, and while this seems like it would be good news for journalism, it’s instead complicated the profession and blurred the lines of ethics.

What was ethically sound practice in the days of print journalism is not necessarily ethically sound today. Thousands of news sites mean hunger for sensationalized stories to drive clicks, usually fueled by our new past time: outrage. Sometimes this can be for a good cause. Most times it is not. Because news travels quickly, these sites cannot pay much for stories or photographs. The going rate for most of them is actually $75–$350 for a researched and crafted piece of journalism. Some don’t pay at all. But for those freelancers seeking to build clips and bylines, to work up to the higher-paying periodicals, cut through the noise, and do this as a profession… well, let’s just say paying the rent and securing a future may take a vague backseat to personal morals and professional ethics. And if you’re a young freelancer, the pressure is even higher. You’re not even on staff. You are beholden to yourself, and if one of your stories backfires, a pub can dump you or throw you under the bus just like that. I don’t even think most journalists realize it’s happening. We’re all under deadline. We’re all looking to break a story. We’re looking for a name or a book deal. But at what expense?

Add to this that we can go deeper in our research in 24 hours than journalists of even the early 2000s could in months. The information we dig up is powerful. It’s a person’s entire life laid out before us and consumed and mocked and judged before a story in 2004 could even be drafted. If you are not a person who’s been subjected to a stranger releasing all of your personal information online—like, for instance, many female writers—it may be difficult for you to really understand how that changes lives.

“When people talk about this professor, they say, ‘She’s a professional; she should have known better.’ But my question is: What if she did know better, and that’s why she did what she did?”

The big story now is the communications professor who called for “muscle.” She’s a middle-aged woman who sometimes teaches classes to journalism students. The distinction between communications and journalism is the former studies the effects of journalism on the masses, and the latter studies itself. It doesn’t surprise me that a communications professor who’s taught classes on how the media landscape changes relationships between celebrities and their fans and how truth can be distorted in the telephone game of social media tried to block a young journalist from entering a space that her students wanted media-free.

“Every outlet reporting on this story reminds us the young journalist received an award for one of his photographs. I have not yet see one that has told us how many students this communications professor has inspired or aided in a time of need.”

When people talk about this professor, they say, “She’s a professional; she should have known better.” But my question is: What if she did know better, and that’s why she did what she did? Afraid for her students, wanting to protect their stories, so they would have the chance to weave them before they were mangled in public? Some of the students had already been dragged through the mud online. These students had become fearful of the media, and instead of asking why, we fight them for our right to report on their fear.

And in an expected twist, their fears came true in the media response to this professor. Within 24 hours, her Facebook page had been dissected and posted online, her class syllabi had been scoured for any evidence that she was anti-media, and her job was suddenly in question. All this for using the colloquialism of “muscle,” which is fairly old-timey and probably used more by middle-aged folk than by Millennials, to call for help. Perhaps she realized that as a woman she would not be listened to, and that this young gentleman wouldn’t look at the big picture and at his subjects’ rights, because he would see them as “subjects,” not humans. Every outlet reporting on this story reminds us the young journalist received an award for one of his photographs. I have not yet seen one that has told us how many students this communications professor has inspired or aided in a time of need.

My call to journalists now is to see people—in all their brilliantly messy, complicated, anxious bodies—not subjects. Now more than ever a code of ethics that takes into account what the press has become is needed. What I want people to do is to think of the real humans affected by this story, of the motivations and the history and the context and the whole big picture, before they publish or share or tweet. I want people to ask themselves if the story they’re sharing is fair and balanced, not black and white. And I want people to take a communications class to understand the effect that digitally circulated words or videos may have on a person’s life to understand the gravity and the importance of their profession, not in a manner of hubris but in a manner of morals.

Do I wish he would have respected the protestors’ wishes? To some degree, yes. I wish he would have asked, “Why are you calling for a media blackout, and how can we report on this story and still respect the protest?” As much as photos of people hugging and crying will help connect with the general public, as he said, they do more to get him a good photo that will earn him more assignments, if we’re perfectly honest. It’s not wrong; it’s just the way it is, and pretending his moral obligation to the public is at stake more than his job seems dishonest. Also, I may have seen more than enough images of crying black people hugging this year. If I were to call this year anything, it would be the Year of Crying Black People Hugging.

But can we connect with the story without a photograph of people hugging? I would hope so. Do I think the reporter should have posted that video online? I think it was inevitable. He has every right to. I wish the professor hadn’t gotten caught up in the tensions and did what she did. Do I think the media has gotten carried away with their freedom-of-speech righteousness, wherein I’ve seen the incident compared to the Charlie Hebdo massacre? Yes. Freedom of speech is only equally afforded to everyone in theory. Those already imbued with power have greater access to freedom of speech, and when their rights are infringed upon, their voices will no doubt be louder. It’s just that they seem only to notice it when it happens to them.

Curiously enough, the people I’ve seen calling for similar measures to respect the rights of the protestors have mostly been women. We might know a little something about distrust.

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