Of Ethics & Empathy
As I write this, Cleveland police are searching for a man who used Facebook's video feature to broadcast his murder of 74-year old Robert Godwin Sr. In the video the suspect talks about how he's always seen as a bad guy and so he's going to kill some people to prove how bad he is -- he also claims to have killed people before the death of Godwin.
I know about this story because NBC Nightly News came on after I checked the local weather and their top story was about the shooting. It showed a large chunk of the video leading up to the murder of Godwin, freezing the moment the murder suspect raises his gun on Godwin and then cutting to an image of Godwin on the ground.
It made me sick.
British filmmaker David Puttnam gave a TED Talk several years ago I use in my Introduction to Journalism classes to begin our conversation around ethics and a journalist's duty to serve their community. In it, Puttnam argues that, when covering political stories, journalists have a duty to inform their audience, not inflame it. They should not sensationalize stories.
Though it is a story about a crime and not politics, the use of the Cleveland murder suspect's execution video is the worst type of inflammatory reporting.
[Update Monday morning: A number of non-broadcast news outlets are also sharing the video, including the Washington Post, this morning. The suspect remains on the loose. Several news outlets have reported that he claimed to have killed as many as 14 or 15 people on Easter, but only evidence of one murder has been found.]
There is nothing news worthy in seeing the gun drawn nor in seeing Godwin's body on the ground. And, yet, that's what was shown on a number of television news broadcasts -- the moment just before Godwin's murder frozen over and over and over again.
He raises his arms to shield himself and you feel his terror and it is the most cruel and callous violation of a man's final moments.
Among the mandates set forth by the Society of Professional Journalists, SPJ, is the idea of minimizing harm.
Ethical journalism treats sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect.
Showing the moments before Godwin's death shows no respect to him or to his family.
Showing his interaction on the video with his murderer shows no respect to the man nor the life he lived.
It does little but shock the viewer.
In Puttnam's terms: The video inflames, it does not inform.
Here's how this video might have been used:
And that's it. You set the stage for what happened and then you tell your viewer it happened. There is no need to show that final interaction nor Godwin's body moments later. There is no way to ethically, compassionately, or empathetically cut that video so that seeing Godwin's body does anything but shock; anything but sensationalize.
Just because the video exists does not mean you must show it to your audience.
This is not a new argument, of course; debates have raged for decades over when, how, and where to show images of death. I generally tend to lean in the direction of showing, not telling.
Human beings generally process visual information more quickly than other kinds. Photographs and videography are powerful storytelling tools. They have the ability to create intimate moments that build empathy and compassion and help an individual emotionally connect with a story.
But not everything captured should be shared.
Here's the question I tell my students to think about when they are considering what multimedia elements will go into their reporting: What work is the element doing for your story? What is it helping your audience understand?
If you can't answer that question, then it's unnecessary.
The image of Robert Godwin Sr. throwing his arms up, a shopping bag in one hand, communicates terror. But it is not necessary to make the audience feel a connection to the victim; it is, frankly, a cheap visceral moment. One that, to me, feels like a violation of a man's last moments on this earth.
A friend of mine, a colleague from my graduate program, posted on Facebook asking individuals to stop sharing the video of Godwin's death because "You are helping achieve the very thing he [the suspected murderer] was hoping for" -- exposure.
SPJ suggests that journalists should "Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity, even if others do."
I would argue that social media has made it far too easy for journalists to overlook that suggestion. Whether it is the personal photographs of a student who died of alcohol poisoning, Facebook posts by suspected criminals, or live videos of criminal acts as they happen -- journalists far too often given in to lurid curiosity. They scoop up what they find, sometimes contacting loved ones in Facebook or Twitter as their grief is warm in order to get a photograph or a quote; sometimes scooping up videos or photos a user thought were private and making them public in the name of little more than getting some detail another news outlet did not.
A man is dead. Murdered as he walked down the street on a warm April day in Cleveland. He had a life. He had a story. Robert Godwin Sr. deserves more than to have his murdered body broadcast across the world as his family, his friends, and his community grieve.
Americans' opinions of journalism are incredibly negative. Americans don't trust journalists for a lot of different reasons. I would argue that sensationalizing the murder of an innocent man and giving exposure to a possible mass murderer who, on the video, seems to say that he's doing this to get attention is a failure of journalism's duty of care to the public it serves.
Towards the end of his TED Talk, Puttnam says, "The media have to decide: Do they see their role as being to inflame or to inform? Because in the end, it comes down to a combination of trust and leadership."
Why should we expect Americans to trust news media when we can't be trusted to pay attention to our own ethical guidelines?
Of Empathy & Public Media
I cry on airplanes. I've done it ever since I started flying. I throw on headphones, click play on music -- anything from Ryan Adams to Neutral Milk Hotel to Patty Griffin -- and I think and I cry; sometimes, I weep.
I have always been someone who manages her emotions. I don't bottle them up so much as I quarantine them until I can deal with them later. Unfortunately for the people sitting near me when I fly, I often deal with them on planes.
There's something about being trapped on this tin can in the sky surrounded by strangers -- you feel both so isolated and so surrounded. No one knows you. No one will judge you for crying into your ginger ale and Biscoff cookies.
Or, if they do, it doesn't matter because you'll likely never see them again.
I sat between two men when I flew home from Boston yesterday who were very uncomfortable with my tears. But, this time, I wasn't crying for myself or because Jeff Mangum was singing about a two-headed boy -- this time I was crying over the life of a man I'd never met.
The man in question is John B. McLemore and he lived in a small Alabama town he referred to as "Shit Town." An Alabama town I have been to as it's not far from Birmingham where I worked for four years as a host/producer for WBHM FM.
John's story was told in seven parts in a podcast called S*Town that you've likely heard of if you are at all internet savvy.
I was hesitant to listen to the podcast at first. I grew up in Appalachia and I lived in Alabama and I am all too familiar with the stereotypes that are often perpetuated about those places in media. The fact S*Town was produced by Serial and This American Life gave me so hope, but I was still wary after listening to the first chapter.
After the second chapter, however, any wariness was gone and I couldn't stop listening.
I'm not going to give you an overview of the podcast because you really should listen to it. I will say that I haven't come across anything so deeply felt in media in a long time. The reporter begins work on the project thinking it's one thing and then the story changes in a profound way. Each time you think you know what the story is about, who John is, something shifts.
There are questions being raised by some about the ethics of the project and, while I understand where they come from, it's clear the reporter approached the story from a place of deep care and concern.
Empathy & Emotion
In the introduction to journalism class I am teaching this semester, my students and I are currently waist deep in a discussion of empathy and emotion. Last week we read and discussed one of my favorite pieces of recent journalism -- The Long Fall of Phoebe Jonchuck -- and explored the ways emotion is used in the piece to make us feel a connection to the people in the story ... including the individual who would be the villain in a less skillfully reported piece.
In S*Town, Brian Reed and his producers manage emotion in a way that feels genuine and human. We care for the people who are in John's life and, as with the Phoebe story, people who seem like villains seem less so when given the space to speak; when treated with care and with respect.
That was the draw, for me, to public broadcasting. I grew up listening to it and, when I was in college and realized it was something I could actually try to get a job in, I ran toward the industry as fast as I could.
The beauty of public media -- particularly programs like This American Life or Radiolab -- is that they provide space for stories to breathe. There's not a feeling of rushing to get to the next story or to get to the point the reporter is trying to make -- instead, the stories most often are meditations on life and relationships. They make us feel, deeply.
What more can you want as a reporter or writer?
That's part of the reason I have been so angry about the proposed federal cuts to Corporation of Public Broadcasting spending. The CPB provides funding to public radio's member stations. It's never a huge amount, but it's significant.
While working at WBHM I was able to report on stories about mental health, addiction, the AIDS epidemic, and homelessness -- all in a way that, I hope, helped the listener see, understand, and empathize with the subject of my story.
Empathy, being able to understand the feelings of another human being, fuels connection. Connection is what we should strive for in all we do. Connection helps us, personally, feel less alone; connection, too, can help us approach difference in more thoughtful way.
To empathize with someone is not to agree with the choices they make, or to even like them; it simply provides a way to understand another person.
In my class last week, I took my students through an exercise where they stare into a partner's eyes and imagine their whole life cycle -- from birth to death to birth again. When I asked the students how they felt, they often pointed to a feeling of vulnerability and discomfort.
"Good journalists," I told them, "are striving for something like that in their stories. Obviously, it can't be as profound as what you felt, but if we can't find a way to make our audiences sometimes feel vulnerable or, at times, uncomfortable, and then leverage that into understanding for someone else, then we aren't really doing our jobs."
Public media does that.
Public media provide spaces for empathy and understanding; vulnerability and discomfort. Programs like This American Life, Frontline, and now S*Town open up the world to the audience, open up ways of being in the world, and ask you to sit there in your vulnerability and discomfort.
Ask you to sit and be and feel.
As I listened to S*Town, there were moments when I cringed. Moments when no one seemed sympathetic and moments where everyone seemed sympathetic. There were moments when I recognized people I knew, people I loved; moments, even, where I recognized something of myself.
That ability to produce empathy, to make an audience feel deeply for a story and its subjects and to connect to them, that's the power of public media.
That's the power of S*Town.
It's something we should celebrate and support; not something we should be defunding.