One of my favorite comments I've gotten on student evaluations the last several years is something along the lines of, "Be prepared to talk about social empathy in this class - A LOT."
The class the student is referring to is the Introduction to Journalism class I teach at Miami University most semesters. And the student was right - we talk about social empathy A LOT in that class.
I have wanted to be a journalist for as long as I can remember wanting to be anything. For me, the power of journalism lies in its ability to help people understand the systems and infrastructures that support various types of inequality in the United States. Social empathy, defined by Elizabeth Segal as "the ability to more deeply understand people by perceiving or experiencing their life situations and as a result gain insight into structural inequalities and disparities," is the concept I use to help my students consider inequality and injustice as we discuss the function of news media in American society. (We actually read the journal article I linked to.)
We also discuss social empathy because journalism ethics is one of the things I care most deeply about when it comes to the profession. For me, to be an ethical journalist, one must be willing to report on difficult subjects, such as inequality, in a deeply human way; in a way that does not stigmatize people and that actually helps your audience understand their world a bit better. Journalism ethics is a big part of every class I teach, whether it's the introductory course, a multimedia course, or one focused on "Sex and the News." When you're working in a newsroom, you might discuss ethical issues as they come up, but there's never much time for a deep reflection on what it means to do ethical work as a journalist. So, I make time in my classes to help my students think about what it means to report ethically to them.
The first ethical mandate set forth by the Society of Professional Journalists, the major national journalism organization in the United States, is to "seek the truth and report it." In my classes, I always emphasize that we can't capture a capital "T" truth, but in our work we can do our best to represent truth as the people who are featured in our stories understand it. We can respect that, but our job also requires that we provide context for claims, that we analyze and interpret ideas, that we help our audience understand why some particular claims might be more trustworthy than others.
If we don't do that, and if we aren't transparent in how we do that, we aren't doing our jobs.
If all we do is regurgitate what other people say or tell us without interrogating the ideas, the histories, the contexts shaping what they say, we may as well be stenographers, not journalists. We also need to be able to call out lies when they are spoken and not use sources in our work who we know aren't honest with us.
And yet ... news outlets covering the current administration interview sources who lie all the time. Those who defend that work say they can't not cover the administration, and I'd agree, but you could do it in a different way because every time a lying source is interviewed - in a news story or during a live interview - their appearance in the news media gives them a kind of legitimacy. It also, in a way, legitimizes their claims. By allowing them to appear in reporting or on Sunday morning shows, reporters and producers suggest there's something worth engaging with in the message somewhere.
Which brings me to "the wall." In the lead up to President Trump's Oval Office address on the issue, spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders pushed the idea that thousands of possible terrorists were caught by border police.
A lie, as FOX News's Chris Wallace seemed to point out in a recent interview with her. Presidential advisor Kellyanne Conway, defending Sanders, glibly claimed that "everybody makes mistakes."
Both Sanders and Conway in the past have been caught spinning other mistruths (if you're uncomfortable with the world "lies") and yet they appear time and again in news stories about the White House.
This seems like the perfect situation in which reporters could simply cover what's said in news releases sent out by the White House rather than engage with the human beings pushing the content. I realize this is easier for print or text based outlets than broadcast, but a lot about the news business is changing - maybe the way outlets, particularly broadcast or cable ones, cover DC is one of those things that should change.
Of course, there's the content of Trump's border wall address itself. Reportedly penned by Stephen Miller, Trump's über-anti-immigration advisor, it was filled with the kinds of fearmongering that has been the hallmark of anti-immigrant and anti-minority rhetoric for centuries.
It was also filled with its fair-share of distortions of facts, mistruths, or lies. This paragraph about immigrant children coming to the United States was particularly bad.
Last month, 20,000 migrant children were illegally brought into the United States — a dramatic increase. These children are used as human pawns by vicious coyotes and ruthless gangs. One in three women are sexually assaulted on the dangerous trek up through Mexico. Women and children are the biggest victims, by far, of our broken system.
The conjuring of "gangs" and traffickers in relation to this discussion of children is meant to remind the audience of why these people are all so scary and dangerous - it also obscures the fact the vast majority of the children who are crossing the border illegally come with their parents.
Masha Gessen visited Miami University in the fall and, during their evening talk, suggested that when officials lie it's generally because they are attempting to hide something and it is the duty of journalists to figure out what they're hiding. Trump, like Putin Gessen said, lies to lie. Conversations after the talk with Gessen revolved around the question of what to do in a situation such as this - how are journalists to "seek the truth and report it," to factcheck, when the individual they are factchecking does not care about truth or facts?
I would argue one way to handle the situation is, at the very least, to not provide primetime space for that individual - be they president or beggar - to peddle lies. Nor, should journalists or news executives attend an off-the-record lunch with this same individual.
Historically, what the president said was understood to automatically be of news value. Agenda setting research suggests the president is one of the most important agenda setters for both politicians and journalists. The particular moment we are in would suggest that maybe it's time journalists stop following the lead of those in power and, perhaps, look for other ways, better ways, to report on policy or claims.
The second ethical mandate of SPJ's Code of Ethics is to "minimize harm." I would argue providing a platform for someone in power to spread lies, hate, and bigotry is a monumental failure in that regard. It sensationalizes a story that is already fraught with tension and does little to inform the audience.
The issue of sensation is at the heart of another ethical misstep by a news outlet recently.
There are a lot of issues with the above story, but the most basic is that news outlets covering this story have run this photo a number of times. The woman is not the professor who committed suicide, but the arrangement of headline and photo makes the audience think it is. It's not truthful in this most basic presentation of the story.
The Tampa Bay Times story is about the death of a young girl, Ela, at the hands of her father, her father's then suicide, and the custody battle that preceded their deaths. The story is a complicated one about abuse and domestic violence. I'm not going to go into all the details in my post, People did a decent job of providing the basics of the story, I'm going to focus on the reporting and writing in the specific Tampa Bay Times article I linked above.
I've been a big fan of the newspaper for a while and I teach the 2016 story The Long Fall of Phoebe Jonchuck almost every semester in one of my classes. So, I was shocked by the sensationalistic and unempathetic way they covered the murder-suicide story in followup reporting.
Things you should know: Ela's parents were divorced and shared custody, but it was rocky. Ela's father did not return his daughter to his ex-wife, Laurel Friedman, as planned in early December. Friedman tried to get a judge to force a return, the judge did not, saying the custody agreement should be adhered to. When Ela's father, Ayhan Aytes, still refused to take Ela home to her mothers', Friedman asked police to do a welfare check. It was on that check that they found both dead - Ela murdered by her father, Aytes dead by his own hand.
It is already a sensational story. One in which allegations of abuse fly - both during the marriage and since its dissolution. Aytes was from Turkey, so there was also the fear he might flee the United States with his daughter. There is no reason to make the story anymore salacious than it already is.
And ... yet ... in their followup story published after the contents of Aytes's suicide letter had been revealed, the Tampa Bay Times seemed to revel in the most lurid details of the story.
Aytes was hanging from a rafter inside the screened patio, just a few inches from the ground, a thin green rope around his neck and a plastic bag on his head, the affidavit says. He was dressed in a black suit and dress shoes. His body faced a framed photo, sitting on a table, of himself and a girl who appeared to be Ela.
When writing a story such as this, there are a lot of choices a journalist has to make, the most fundamental being how much detail should be provided in the story. Higher in the story the reporter had made clear Aytes hung himself and that Ela had been found in bed. I would argue that this level of detail is unnecessary and adds nothing to our overall understanding of the story. It does not minimize harm for Ela's family and loved ones. It does not minimize harm to Aytes's family, either. It is the journalistic equivalent of rubbernecking, of sharing not to inform, but to participate and perpetuate the spectacle of the carnage.
There is no news value in knowing Aytes used a green rope or that Ela's hands were lying palms up. We don't get a better understanding of who these people were in life, only how they appeared in death. All the intimate details of their deaths are available for all to see - which, I would argue, is unnecessary.
The reporter could have said Aytes was found hanging with a bag over his head and that Ela was found in her bed and that there were no signs of trauma to her body. That's enough. That's all anyone needs to know. That information is still painful, but it doesn't work to re-traumatize Ela or Aytes's loved ones.
What was so profound, I think, about The Long Fall of Phoebe Jonchuck, is the way the reporter used the story of the little girl's death to explain the multitudes of systems and people who failed both father and child.
The story about Aytes's suicide letter does none of that kind of work.
Though the wall story and the murder-suicide are very different stories, what they share is a surplus of information related to them.
In the case of the wall, that surplus is often not truthful and is often framed by centuries of bigotry, fear, and hate. In the murder-suicide, that surplus is in intimate details that are not necessary in order for a reporter to tell a compelling, thoughtful, empathetic story about the death of a very young girl at the hands of her father.
The media have to decide: Do they see their role as being to inflame or to inform? - David Puttnam
I've written before about how compelling I find David Puttnam's idea that journalists should practice a duty of care when reporting stories. In his discussion of the concept he points out that politics is about choices, and (as I've argued on this blog) so is journalism.
Journalists can either continue making choices informed by tradition, choices which have often served to inflame more than inform, or they can make new ones. They can decide to treat official lies as lies. They can choose to be mindful of those they may, and sometimes do, hurt. They can choose which information is most necessary and maybe that takes their reporting down a different path than they may have followed in the past, that is not necessarily a bad thing, but you have to be willing to do it (and to have an editor who will let you).
I believe deeply in journalism. Americans clearly care about it given the rise in readership post the 2016-election, but studies suggest Americans still distrust news media.
Abandoning ethics, or overlooking them, as we swim in a sea of information - including both untruthful information and sensationalistic information - is a path to perdition. More than ever our audiences, the publics we serve, need journalists to contextualize, interpret, and analyze information. If we don't do that, if we print more than we should because we think it will get page clicks or if we provide a platform for a person in power to spread lies just because we always have, we fail our audience.
The Washington Post's slogan claims "Democracy dies in darkness" - it also drowns in a sea of prurient or dishonest information.
If journalists truly want to seek the truth and minimize harm, if they want to report in a way that is ethical, that holds the powerful accountable for their actions, exposes inequality and injustice, and helps their communities better understand their world, then they simply have to make different reporting choices. Maybe harder or braver ones, too.
Do they want to inflame or inform? If inform, then tradition may not be the best agenda setter.