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Author Topic: Journalism Ethics: Where do we draw the line?  (Read 480 times)

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Offline Question MarkTopic starter

Journalism Ethics: Where do we draw the line?
« on: August 19, 2014, 11:37:31 PM »
I found this article on Al Jazeera: "Unethical journalism can make Ferguson more dangerous" by Malcolm Harris.

Article Text
“Be sensitive when seeking or using interviews or photographs of those affected by tragedy or grief,” reads the Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics.

As police in Ferguson, Missouri, prepared to enforce the first night of curfew on Saturday, I was transfixed on Twitter, refreshing the feeds of deployed journalists and waiting for them to drop the next tidbit of information. From these feeds, thousands of other people and I watched the countdown to curfew as though it were a high-stakes sports game — hungry for details and visuals. We learned that the police were firing tear gas, that the police said it was just smoke and that photos of the tear gas canisters eventually emerged, putting the cops’ credibility into question.

We also saw journalists display a shocking disregard for the well-being of their subjects, repeatedly putting them at further risk of harm. As the police prepared to clear the streets, reporters were tweeting the locations and actions of demonstrators, seemingly oblivious to the fact that they were in effect gathering intelligence for the authorities.

Some social media watchers were outraged that reporters were letting the police corral them away from the action into media pens, but downplayed in these discussions are the more abstract standards that ask journalists to consider the consequences of their actions. Along with “Seek truth and report it” and “Act independently,” the “Minimize harm” section makes up a quarter of the Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics. Just because journalists can legally get away with something doesn’t mean they should. “Recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort,” the code says. “Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance.”

In a hypercompetitive environment where the right scoop can net you tens of thousands of new Twitter followers and a national profile, journalists may not be willing or even able to take the time for editorial deliberation. The demand for more immediate knowledge has changed the game, and the attention market doesn’t pause for consideration — even when there are lives at stake. No one is going to open a Ferguson news bureau, and after the national reporters go home, the authorities will begin handing down consequences.

It’s not just the fault of journalists, though. Now that Twitter and Instagram have brought the barriers to publication to just about zero in terms of time and resources and journalists can publish information as quickly as they can experience it, the public feels entitled to real-time information about any newsworthy event anywhere in the world. We earnestly believe we are meant to see and hear everything as it happens and that the world is always better off for our attention. Transparency becomes not a means to justice but an end in itself, and a slavish devotion to immediacy and openness undermines one of the most important journalistic virtues: discretion.

As reporters on Friday night posted Vines of alleged looters taking things out of an electronics store, they probably weren’t thinking about throwing them in jail, but I’d bet some viewers — namely, the cops and their sympathizers — were. After the 2011 London riots (caused by a similar police execution, of 29-year-old Mark Duggan), some Londoners formed a group to run facial recognition software on all available pictures of looters in order to identify them and turn them over to the police. The New York district attorney’s office used footage from an Occupy Wall Street live stream to convict activist Cecily McMillan of assaulting a police officer. Information may want to be free, but the police want to put people in jail, and they’ll take whatever evidence they can get.

Live-streamers are the worst offenders when it comes to publishing without foresight. Whole categories of journalistic ethics are simply inapplicable to what they do because there is no layer of deliberation between what they see and what they publish. Like a gun stuck on automatic, they are incapable of prudence by design.

The ideologies at play can’t be discounted either. Now streaming out of Ferguson for Vice, the rabid transparency ideologue Tim Pool is at the far end of the spectrum: He claims his viewer count entitles him to stream anything he sees. Pool made his name during Occupy Wall Street, when he doggedly followed activists day after day, whether they wanted him there or not. “Everyone deserves to know the truth! Information is free! End of story!” Pool yelled at an OWS protester trying to explain to Pool why people didn’t want him recording them letting the air out of police car tires. “I also think that people’s personal safety is really important,” the protester answers, slowly.

Pool is no journalist, but new technologies and the breakneck pace of the news pushes them in his direction. Reporters need to reconsider the way they approach events like Ferguson, lest they forget what separates them from live-streamers. When we hear about journalistic ethics outside the classroom or newsroom, it’s usually in the context of plagiarism scandals or conflicts of interest with advertisers or government officials. But journalists are supposed to care about people’s safety as well as the quality of their stories and the number of followers on Twitter they gain.

We all need media in Ferguson, and we owe the responsible among them a great debt. Using foresight and demonstrating concern doesn’t mean reporters can’t report. Often it’s a question of timing: Information published after a short delay is just as good for those of us at home but useless to authorities. We don’t need to know about everything in perfect detail as soon as it happens, especially if it puts the already vulnerable in more danger. Taking time to think about consequences for your subjects isn’t an abdication of your duties as a journalist; it’s a vital part of fulfilling them.

In light of the SPJ’s specific cautions about grieving, juvenile and private sources, I believe that publishing unedited images of Ferguson’s demonstrators engaged in possibly criminal behavior — including breaking curfew — is a breach of journalistic ethics. In the age of facial recognition, publishing images with identifiable faces while they break the law is as good as printing those people’s names — another violation of accepted practice. As a society with strong legal protections for journalists, we depend a lot on their tact, foresight and self-discipline. If it takes a monopoly on force to get journalists to shut off their cameras, then they end up serving the interests of whoever is most willing to hit them. Ferguson’s young black population is already fighting an uphill battle with the law, and it is flat-out wrong to make their road harder. To the reporter who needs to hear it spelled out: Sometimes “Don’t shoot” means you too

In short, Harris draws attention to the increasingly popular coupling of live journalism and social media, including Twitter and livestreams.  He criticizes journalists at Ferguson for providing too much coverage in a mad rush for views and exposure, and thus putting the subjects of their documentation at risk.  For example, a journalist tweeting protester movements can tip off police, and a video of looters may lead to convictions years after the fact.  He considers this a breach of journalist ethics.

On the other hand, the bolder journalists are providing us access to otherwise inaccessible information, like the photos of Cold War tear gas canisters.  Those who allow themselves to be corralled by police may even be guilty of ethical violations, for neglecting to dig to the truth of the matter.

Now, I'm a scientist, not a journalist.  I'm not familiar with their ethics, practices, or standards.  Do you think Harris makes a valid point?  If so, where should journalists draw the line?  What do they owe to us, their reportees, and to themselves ethically?  Should there be regulations in place, or do the journalists simply need to be pressured?

Note: This isn't meant to be a lightning rod for Ferguson discussion.  You can find a thread for that topic here.  I'm simply using the Ferguson crisis as a segue into a discussion of journalistic ethics.
« Last Edit: August 19, 2014, 11:40:58 PM by Question Mark »

Offline DorothyGale

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Re: Journalism Ethics: Where do we draw the line?
« Reply #1 on: August 19, 2014, 11:49:49 PM »
Just to make this short and sweet - I think the responsibility lies with the consumers. We perpetuate the media's content by reacting to what's put out there. Whatever gets them ratings and advertising. Never mind that nearly every source could be discredited somewhere and yet - who holds them accountable?

We share things before we read them - before we verify their authenticity. We fuel the fire by getting angry at each other instead of waiting for the facts and then presenting our case.

The Journalist Code of Ethics is obviously more of a "guideline." And everyone is suddenly "guilty until proven innocent." When did that happen? We continue to make every issue black or white (yes, racism, but also two ends of the spectrum). There is more and more gray matter in our world, because of technology and new ways to implement media. We have to be responsible for ourselves. And hold /ourselves/ to a higher standard as consumers before the media will ever change their tune.

Offline Dice

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Re: Journalism Ethics: Where do we draw the line?
« Reply #2 on: August 20, 2014, 02:00:48 AM »
a video of looters may lead to convictions years after the fact.

What is the issue with this?

Offline consortium11

Re: Journalism Ethics: Where do we draw the line?
« Reply #3 on: August 20, 2014, 03:55:15 AM »
Just to make this short and sweet - I think the responsibility lies with the consumers.

I take a slightly different view.

Responsibility lies with the perpetrators.

If during a riot one decides to loot a store I'm not sure how one can start screaming about a "lack of journalistic ethics" if footage of you doing so means that you get arrested at a later date if a video of you doing so begins to circulate. Likewise if you assault a police officer, especially if as part of your defence you try to destroy his reputation.

There are circumstances where I appreciate that a journalist (be it professional or the sort of citizen-journalist new media encourages) should be very careful about what they publish. In the UK we've frequently seen people who's names should be hidden by law get "exposed" on twitter (both sexual assault victims and those falsely accused of it) and in situations where a journalist reporting full details would genuinely put lives at risk. But that latter part isn't a new development or restricted to new media; during the Falklands War the BBC reported that the British were about to launch a surprise attack and in doing so alerted the Argentinians who could therefore prepare and almost certainly leading to more deaths for British soldiers.

But when the consequences of your actions being reported are a legitimate arrest and prosecution I think journalistic ethics hold up just fine.

Offline Zakharra

Re: Journalism Ethics: Where do we draw the line?
« Reply #4 on: August 20, 2014, 09:51:37 AM »
Quote from: Question Mark on Yesterday at 11:37:31 PM

    a video of looters may lead to convictions years after the fact.

What is the issue with this?

 I don't see any issues with that either.

Offline vtboy

Re: Journalism Ethics: Where do we draw the line?
« Reply #5 on: August 20, 2014, 01:13:40 PM »
Who is a journalist these days? Who is not?

Before miniaturization and the advent of the internet, gathering and reporting the news was generally done only by the relatively small number of people employed by institutions possessed of the considerable wherewithal these tasks then required. Now, anyone with a cell phone and a social media account can be a journalist. Codes of professional ethics in journalism may have had some salutary effect when only professionals were journalists. I'm far from convinced they continue to have practical vitality in the information age.

In any event, I am not troubled by the greater rapidity with which events are now covered. After all, old news loses its right to the label. More unsettling is the expansion in the reporting of opinion over fact, the former being generally cheaper and more marketable, made all the worse by the pervasive blurring of the two.