Is Ethical Journalism Dead?
Evidently so if recent events are any indication.
Last week, MSNBC, CNN and other various local affiliates decided to forego ethical behaviour to enrich their coverage of America’s worst mass murder in almost three years. While the world slowly untangled the news of more gun violence coming from the States, local, national and international media decided to follow another lead.
This lead brought them – literally – to the front doorstep of another smaller but important story – media ethics and privacy.
As a person who makes his living creating media strategies, I was shocked to witness what happened last week as mob mentality overruled the tenets of responsible journalism.
Many questions continue to arise from this yellow day in media. Has the pressure to make the ‘6’ cast aside the ability for journalists to practice ethics? Has the voracious appetite of news content every minute of the day erased the parameter of respectable news gathering?
Privacy and Snoops
We understand the media has the tendency to be intrusive. Equally, some intrusion into privacy can be essential towards informing the public. Responsible reporting has the ability to grow the story by telling an accurate account of the event or happening. It is only when we cross this line that media is presented with an ethical dilemma.
How much information do we share so the viewer is informed?
In the case of terror suspects Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik, personal assets including passport documents, social security cards, photographs and worst of all, a baby’s crib, were displayed in HD splendor. Why these items were still on site and not in FBI inventory is a puzzle, but was there really the need for viewers to know the colour of the baby’s onesie Thereby offering a clue to his/her identity? What about the photographs containing images of other persons that have not released their image to the media? Are they elemental to the right of information versus the right of privacy?
Absolutely not. And yet reporters took the effort to lay these items out to solicit sensational viewership.
Interpretation of Policy
Here in Canada, individual media by practice have their own ethical guidelines that stipulate particular behavior in news gathering. By example, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) Journalistic Standards and Practices states under “Fairness, ‘In our information gathering and reporting, we treat individuals and organizations with openness and respect. We are mindful of their rights. We treat them even-handedly.’”
It makes you wonder if the language was intentionally vague to support more leverage when intruding on personal privacy.
The Canadian Association of Journalist expands on CBC’s guideline by adding, “However, there are inevitable conflicts between the right to privacy and the rights of all citizens to be informed about matters of public interest. Each situation should be judged in light of common sense, humanity and relevance.”
Let’s look at the last part of this statement, “Each situation should be judged in light of common sense, humanity and relevance.” With the understanding I am basing my criticism on Canadian ethos of journalism, did the BBC, MSNBC, et al in San Bernardino, have ‘common sense’ when videotaping photographs of persons not associated with the two suspects? It’s also important to note, the suspects were not deemed terrorists by the FBI until the 5th of December.
And let’s not forget the ‘relevance’ of videotaping the washroom. Remember only psychos and murderers have messy washrooms! Right?
Language is Everything
A day following the San Bernardino media circus, The Society of Professional Journalists in the States released a statement saying, “Walking into a building and live broadcasting the pictures, addresses and other identifying information of children or other people who may have no involvement in the story does not represent best and ethical practices.”
A statement carefully crafted not to call down the recent exploits of its members, but merely a gentle slap on the wrist.
What message does this send out to the general public when dealing with media? How can the public continue to trust the media to withhold their privacy with no recourse to improper process?
The language almost completely supports the broadcaster having the last say whether, “there is a public interest that outweighs the expectation of privacy.”
Clearly broadcasters and media have a job to do by informing the public of issues and incidents that may impact their safety and well-being. The problem lies within the interpretation of ‘responsibility’ when privacy is concerned. As shown in California, the ethical process was unfettered and improvident. Not a single ounce of ‘responsibility’ was practiced by any broadcaster that day.
The privacy of an individual continues to be centre regarding this issue, but what happens when the breach is reflective of an entire culture or religion? Especially relevant in these days of terror.
In the San Bernardino experience, we see ONE particular lifestyle on display – not all. But alas, the media in their frenzy to parlay any form of ethical behaviour in favour of ratings, paraded various artifacts including the Koran in front of the world. Sound bites emphasised these were ‘Muslim’ items and emblazoned this information across the TV screen.
A reckless exercise creating a stigma that all American ‘Muslim’ apartments contain the same contents and ideology.
Fortunately, many self-respecting Americans immediately lashed back through Twitter with the hashtag #MuslimApartment or #MyMuslimApartment. Their tweets offered the world a glimpse inside their homes sharing personal property as American football jerseys and Disney play figures. A resolute statement from American Muslims proud of their nationality and quick to remind the media not to forget, “…common sense, humanity and relevance,” when reporting their stories.
The media are integral to the business of sharing information for the public’s well-being. As citizens, we just need reassurance that the media follow the same set of common sense privacy guidelines we use every day. Especially in times of terrorism and mistrust.