Ethical journalism for a new age

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A convergence of journalists, activists and protesters has been abuzz online heatedly discussing the journalistic ethics of covering protests. While the journalistic establishment has long held that the public is entitled to as much information as possible and that there is no right not to be photographed in public spaces, the universality of such standards are increasingly being put in question. As protesters take to the streets, activists and journalists fear that identification of those involved will precipitate harassment and endanger those protesters’ lives. These anxieties have been fanned by the revelation that six prominent activists associated with protests in Ferguson following the murder of Michael Brown died under suspicious circumstances in the years since.

College papers faced similar questions earlier this year. A minor uproar ensued at Harvard when journalists at the Harvard Crimson allegedly tipped off Immigration and Customs Enforcement to a protest that had recently taken place on Harvard’s campus. Some activists were concerned that by requesting comment from the agency, The Crimson “blatantly [endangered] undocumented students on campus.” In November, editors at The Daily Northwestern issued an apology for posting photos of protesters who had rallied to condemn an event which featured Jeff Sessions. Of greater importance than the disputes which surface over the First Amendment rights of protesters and journalists is that college publications maintain trust among its community. Without it, no informative reporting can take place.

A particular set of conditions make college publications like The Stanford Daily unique. While The Daily hones in on coverage of Stanford-specific issues, these articles often obtain a life of their own as they get picked up by national media sources. In just the past year, news coverage of Serra renamings, Chanel Miller’s pursuit of recognition from University administrators and Ben Shapiro’s invitation to speak on campus put The Daily’s reporting under a national spotlight. Questions of journalistic ethics are heightened by the difficult positionality of college papers, which operate at a crossroads between the local communities they serve and a broader national audience. While college journalism strives to meet the standard of objectivity, it cannot consider this standard outside of the context within which it operates. 

In this extraordinary moment, we college publications must revisit professional codes of ethics and develop principles in keeping with the ethical reporting of protests. College journalism, like the media writ large, must be properly equipped to fulfill its mission of making as much information available to the public while minimizing harm. While most students are away from campus due to the global pandemic, recent debates underline the importance of formulating principles ahead of time rather than mitigating harm after it has already been done. We will outline key areas that college publications should consider. The answers to these questions need to be carefully deliberated on by each college publication, given circumstances that vary from the size of its readership to the composition of its staff.

First, college publications should engage in meaningful dialogue with their readership on what ethical journalism means. It is not uncommon on college campuses for hostility to exist between journalists and students, student groups, faculty and administration; while this tension is often a necessary byproduct of rigorous reporting, it also often signals real and justifiable distrust. Journalists rely on trust from diverse communities and constituencies to write informative and truthful stories, and this trust must be earned.

College publications should actively seek public feedback and criticism on its journalistic practices. To normalize public comment, these publications could, for example, regularly send anonymous feedback forms to collect responses. Opinions editors should encourage community members to submit op-eds and letters to the editor that are critical of the publication’s reporting.

Second, college publications should determine how to discuss with sources the potential consequences of their participation in a story. For many students, inclusion in a story in their college newspaper represents the first time they will be quoted in writing that reaches a large audience. Many will not have thought through the repercussions of providing quotes and being identified in a news article. 

Standardizing procedures for keeping sources apprised of possible consequences of their participation is one possible solution to this dilemma. Doing so would offer an opportunity for college journalists to bear responsibility for the stakes of their reporting and demonstrate care for their sources.  

Third, college publications should develop coherent policies surrounding identifiably photographing protesters. While there is historically no right to privacy in public spaces, it is incumbent on newspapers to photograph responsibly and minimize harm in their coverage. As the SPJ’s code of conduct states, journalists must be able to “balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort.” 

Is there a history of online harassment for activists who have been named in the publication’s prior reporting? Have activist groups criticized the publication’s use of photographs in the past, and on what grounds? These questions must be considered in the development of guidelines surrounding when photographs of protesters should be taken, how they should be taken, if their faces should be blurred out and how they should be identified in captions. Photographers can exercise care in contextualizing the photographs they choose to take and documenting not sensationally but fairly. 

Fourth, college publications should regularize conversations about implicit bias in reporting on protests. Research shows that news coverage of protests against anti-Black racism and Indigenous rights protests are far more likely to be characterized as “disruptive” and “confrontational” compared with reporting on other protests. These implicit biases are often exacerbated by procedural habits like resorting to official police reports to write stories. Given that the broader journalism industry suffers from a lack of diversity, we as college publications must be vigilant against perpetuating the same homogeneity in our organizations and the same biased narratives. 

Truth is neither simple nor easy. The four points we outline — dialogue with readership, transparency with sources, clear policies on photographic protesters and dedicated discussion of implicit bias — are places for college journalism to begin the difficult considerations of how to report on these unprecedented times. Journalism, which promises to deliver free, unbiased information which is the basis of democratic participation, must both hold power to account and be accountable to its own power. 

This article has been updated to make clear that the protest The Crimson contacted ICE about had already taken place when The Crimson reached out. Specifically “that took place” was changed to “that had recently taken place.”

The Vol. 257 Editorial Board consists of Claire Dinshaw ’21, Malavika Kannan ’23, Layo Laniyan ’22, Adrian Liu ’20 and Jasmine Liu ’20. Willoughby J. Winograd ’22 is also a member but dissented from this opinion. Read his dissenting opinion here.

The Daily is committed to publishing a diversity of op-eds and letters to the editor. We’d love to hear your thoughts. Email letters to the editor to eic ‘at’ stanforddaily.com and op-ed submissions to opinions ‘at’ stanforddaily.com. 

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