Calling Things What They Are
"Politics," British filmmaker David Puttnam said in a 2013 Ted Talk, "is about choices."
Puttnam's talk was about whether journalists have a "duty of care" to their public and to their society. Duty of care is the idea that an individual, in the course of his or her work, took reasonable care to ensure that work would not cause unreasonable harm to another individual. It's a legal/medical term and Puttnam was suggesting that journalists, like doctors or businesses, have a duty of care.
I often use Puttnam's talk in my journalism classes during ethics discussions. The mandate to "minimize harm" in the SPJ Code of Ethics and the concept of duty of care seem to go together well. And I like framing ethical decisions as a form of care -- care for sources, care for community, and care for profession. Because, like politics, journalism is also about choices. Every decision made in regards to a story shapes the way it is understood. Shapes, too, the impact that story may have on the community which reads it.
I have been thinking a lot about this in regards to the coverage of Unite the Right 2. NPR's interview with Jason Kessler has produced an interesting debate over whether or not he should have been given a platform to spew his particular brand of bigotry. I am swayed by arguments both for and against the interview's airing. There's a utility in understanding the rhetoric of hate groups if you hope to counter them but, at the same time, Kessler's rhetoric is not new and, if not new, not newsworthy.
But what's really bothering me about the reporting in the lead up to Unite the Right 2 is the euphemistic way news outlets write about white supremacist beliefs. Or white supremacists. It's not specifically tied to the rally, but this New York Times story about a white supremacist living in Ohio drew particular ire from readers.
If you're been on Twitter at all, then you've seen the thing that has bothered me most this last week -- the way the death of Heather Heyer has been framed. Heyer was the woman murdered by a white supremacist who drove into a crowd of counter-protesters last year.
Some social media posts and headlines have used the word "murdered" or "killed" when writing about the anniversary of Unite the Right and Heyer's death; however, there have been too many which have produced posts or headlines which mask the truth of what happened. NPR is among those facing criticism for this tweet.
The wording "a car rammed..." is what has upset some people because it's only partially true. It erases the fact that the car was purposefully driven into the crowd by a man fueled by hate.
"A car driven by a white supremacist" or "A white supremacist drove a car into a crowd" or "One year ago Heather Heyer was murdered by a white supremacist in Charlottesville" would have all been better, more truthful choices. Choices that remind the audience that someone chose to do this, it was not some random accident. You don't drive a car into a crowd of people without the intent to kill and/or injure. Heather Heyer was murdered by an act of hate. 19 others were injured in that act of hate.
It was an act of domestic terrorism though it is rarely framed in reporting as such.
Scholar Robert Entman wrote that to frame something is to "to select some aspects of a perceived reality and make them more salient in a communicating text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition.”
To frame something is to make a particular interpretation more accessible or visible than another.
The way reporters and news outlets frame stories shapes how we understand what happened. Framing stories about United the Right in a way that minimizes the racial violence and the intent of some to do harm takes the teeth out of the truth. Framing Heather Heyer's death in a way that makes it seem less like the intentional act of an individual -- that makes it seem less like murder -- is not a truthful retelling of the story.
Her mother, Susan Bro, has said that she is keeping the location of her daughter's remains a secret to keep neo-Nazis from disturbing them. Heyer's death was an act of hate and the reporting on it and on its aftermath should not, must not, shy away from that reality.
If the most important job of journalists is to "seek the truth and report it," then to do anything less is a dereliction of duty. To frame something in a way that obscures what happened is a failure of the journalist's duty of care.
Sometimes, such framings are not the result of a purposeful intent to obscure -- sometimes they are made out of concern for space or how something will read on the page. I acknowledge that. But I would argue that even then, it is not unreasonable that journalists ask themselves if the way they are framing the story is really an honest depiction of what took place. If something was a murder, call it a murder. If someone was convicted of rape, call him a rapist.
Journalists can't be afraid to use the most honest, direct, truthful language in their reporting.
In this case, a white supremacist murdered Heather Heyer with his car. That's the story.
Journalists have to call things what they are if they truly care about their role as watchdogs in a society and if they truly care about the communities they are reporting on.