The Responsibilities of a Journalist

Photo by G. Crescoli on Unsplash

On Nov. 1st, days before the midterm elections, President Trump spoke from the West Wing about policy changes regarding the immigrant caravan coming from Central America, as well as the larger policy at hand pertaining to immigrants.

CNN, the cable news network Trump and his fellow fans deride as nothing more than fake news, aired Trump’s spiel of fear mongering and lies in its entirety, almost half an hour. CNN, as well as cable news in general, had received criticism in the past for airing Trump’s campaign speeches and rallies uninterrupted back during his 2016 election run.

Prior to Trump’s speech the White House made a statement that Trump would discuss new asylum laws. It did not. What it did include, as Laura McGann reported for Vox, were “ridiculous to racist” claims, such as:

  • As Trump prepares to send more troops to the border, he said that asylum seekers who throw rocks should know ‘we will consider that a firearm. Because there’s not much difference.’
  • He insinuated that there’s ‘a lot of money’ moving around in the immigrant caravan, a reference to conspiracy theories about George Soros’s secret involvement.
  • He said American women should fear men coming across the border, a near-verbatim use of the racist trope that men of color are a sexual threat to white women.
  • He claimed there are immigrants who come to America with ‘big medical problems before they get here.’
  • In response to a question about a Georgia governor’s race, he volunteered that Stacey Abrams, a Yale-educated black woman with years in public service, is not qualified to serve.

There’s no doubt now that whenever President Trump speaks, there’s a strong chance he may be embellishing the truth, or even lie. In fact, it’s become customary to expect this, which says a lot about America’s current political situation.

We live under the rule of a president who espouses conspiracy theories like their facts, refuses to denounce the violent and hateful acts of racists and who has lauded the successes of his own sexual misconduct (and which was captured in audio recording). And like a rolling stone, Trump can’t seem to be stopped.

The airing of Trump’s speech by CNN got me thinking about the role journalists play in this. Journalists as guaranteed, by the First Amendment of the Constitution, are given the freedom of the press, free to report and disseminate information without government interference (for the most part).

It’s the duty of journalists to inform their audience, from investigating stories to simply covering events, such as presidential speeches. It’s also the duty of journalists to ensure what they cover is news and to not give a voice and platform to conspiracy theories, hate speech and other insidious forms of talk. In our increasingly politically fraught and polarized world, where fake news and outrageous beliefs abound, this has become particularly important.

I’ve begun my first reporting job — as well as first job ever — as a staff writer/news reporter for the Greenwood Commonwealth, a daily newspaper in Greenwood, Mississippi. The job, as well as the town itself, has proven to be a steep learning curve. As a news reporter I’m tasked with writing two articles a day, which isn’t an easy feat when you’re new to town and trying to understand the concept of news.

Occasionally I’ll get pitches from my editor to report on. In one such instance my colleague, Mitch Robinson, received a pitch from the editor regarding news that Greenwood was ranked the second most dangerous city in all of Mississippi. The website claiming the ranking was hardly a publication of high regard. It was RoadSnacks, a .net infotainment website that uses clickbait headlines to draw readers in to help them determine the best, and worst, places to live in the US.

To its credit, the writers of the website cite that they use data and analytics (as well as a sense of humor) to determine best and worst listicles of cities across the country.

Robinson reported on the news, asking Police Chief Ray Moore for a comment. Moore described the site as nothing more than “Facebook advertising garbage.” Robison’s reporting was eventually made into a story that took the front page of the paper the next day.

Greenwood indeed has had homicides — six so far in the city and 11 in the county of Leflore. But still, was there any credence in publishing such an article concerning a website that is hardly a trustworthy source?

A few weeks later, when I covered a city council meeting for the paper, Moore presented himself in front of the council, where he again “venomously” denied the websites claims. He pointed out that Greenwood is one of the safest, if not the safest, cities in Greenwood. (“Hell, I wouldn’t go that far,” quipped council member and state senator David Jordan.)

The mayor of Greenwood, Carolyn McAdams, stared at me from her chair, wishing the paper wouldn’t cover such news, saying it did nothing more than damage the reputation of a town. Indeed, what was the point? Greenwood is a very southern area, the Delta, which most people would rather skip. The town itself, like many small towns across the county, is also drying up. Empty store-fronts are common throughout the town’s historical downtown area.

As for myself, I’m still wrapping my head around the concept of what constructs news, and in my particular job, what constructs community news.

The Commonwealth does pride itself on solid work. My own touch with a publication brushing with something less than newsworthy does not match the airing of Trump’s racist drivel. But as I work my way up, whether I continue to be a reporter or move to become an editor, it’s important to know that I should only report the news, and not hate, conspiracy theories, and other matters that can lead to chaos or rage.