Stop and think: Doing the right thing with your right to publish
How journalists approach controversial topics can have an affect on the way readers receive a story. Student and professionals alike encourage reporters to consider the impact of their words.
This spring, when CNN covered the trial of two Steubenville, Ohio, high school football players who were ultimately convicted of raping a teenage girl, many viewers felt the reporters’ concerns were misaligned.
The segment of the newscast showed the boys’ apologies in the courtroom, and largely focused on what the conviction and punishment would mean for their futures.
“It was incredibly emotional, incredibly difficult, even for an outsider like me to watch what happened as these two young men that had such promising futures … literally watched as they believed their lives fell apart,” CNN Correspondent Poppy Harlow said.
A Change.org petition, signed by more than 290,000 people, called for CNN to apologize. A similar petition was directed specifically at CNN Worldwide President Jeff Zucker and gained just as many signatures.
As the CNN coverage demonstrated, a reporter’s approach to a story can spark as much reaction as the news itself. It’s a lesson student and professional reporters have learned repeatedly, with a number of high-profile incidents occurring in the last several months.
The national coverage of Steubenville and the focus on the perpetrators’ suffering helped spur the Verde magazine staff at Palo Alto High School in California to take a look at the topic themselves, outgoing Co-Editor-in-Chief Evelyn Wang said. In April, the staff published a seven-piece cover package focused on rape culture.
Though adviser Paul Kandell supported his staff and felt the stories were important for teens to read, he said he was nervous to put their work out to the public after stories of rapes in Steubenville, Ohio, and Torrington, Conn., tore apart those communities.
Kandell and the staff had “a very long list” of concerns they dealt with as they pulled the package together.
“We did not take anything about this lightly,” he said. “I wanted as much help as I could get. We needed every bit of it.”
As writer Lisie Sabbag prepared to write the main story, “You can’t tell me I wasn’t raped,” she studied resources on the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma website and took a Poynter Institute for Media Studies course dealing with how to cover the subject, Kandell said.
Kandell consulted colleagues, the Dart Center, the Ochberg Society for Trauma Journalism and the SPLC, and let his principal know about the project. After speaking with experts, Kandell said the staff decided to add a trigger warning and include crisis hotline numbers and information about what readers could do if they have been sexually assaulted or know someone who has been.
A member of the Ochberg society read through Sabbag’s drafts, and Sabbag shared the story with the girls featured in the story before it was published as well.
Verde granted the girls anonymity because of the sensitivity of their stories. Details deemed “unnecessarily graphic” or that could jeopardize the girls’ anonymity were taken out, Kandell said.
The staff also decided to assign pseudonyms to the boys quoted in another story, “From a different perspective: a discussion with Paly guys” even though they didn’t request anonymity, Wang said. The staff felt there “could be consequences” for some of the boys because of their statements, and the goal was for the boys to represent the opinions of various groups, she said.
Giving the boys that platform served as what the staff felt was a more appropriate alternative to interviewing the alleged perpetrators in Sabbag’s story, Kandell said.
“There’s a number of ethical issues with that,” Wang said. “If we do interview the alleged perpetrator, there’s a danger that he could go back and somehow retaliate and make the victim’s or survivor’s life harder, so we decided not to do that.”
Staff were very concerned about how readers would respond to the story, and sought to guide the conversation they hoped would occur.
Keeping the survivors’ identities safe was a top priority, Wang said. The staff was prepared to steer conversation away from guessing names and toward the bigger topic of rape culture both in social media and in verbal discussions.
The staff prepared “intervention text” that said “things like ‘please focus on issues not individuals,’” for social media conversations and even had a schedule for who would check certain social media sites at certain times, Kandell said. They were prepared to respond similarly if they heard people speculating or were questioned directly.
The staff also tried to get the public ready for the package, Kandell said.
“I’m interested in this question of whether or not you can … prepare the public to responsibly receive a story like this,” Kandell said. “I’m interested in the idea that somehow you inoculate them from the urge that many of them will have to immediately go on to social media and do something damaging that they might not think about, they might not have thought it through beforehand.”
As part of those efforts, Kandell emailed a memo to school staff “just letting them know what was going to happen, outlining a number of concerns I had that I thought they might share.”
The staff also posted an editors’ note online the night before the magazine came out that encouraged readers to refrain from gossiping when the stories were released. That note received more than 1,500 views prior to the magazine’s release, Kandell said. A similar editors’ note containing a trigger warning was placed in each copy of the magazine distributed the next day.
“I kind of envisioned this as a hand-to-hand combat battle for the anonymity of our sources and the dignity of the story,” Kandell said. “I really thought that’s where we might be headed and it just didn’t go that way.”
The staff also talked about whether it was their place as journalists to prepare readers as they did.
“All I can say is that they were very strongly motivated to tell these stories, to tell this story,” Kandell said, “and they felt it was within their grasp to do it effectively and the downside seemed to pale in comparison with the very possible upside.”
Striking a balance
Society of Professional Journalists Ethics Committee Chairman Kevin Smith said it’s important for newspaper advisers to remind students to slow down and consider the relevance of a story as well as their motivation for writing it and what result they are trying to produce.
“When students have access to information, sometimes they get so caught up in getting the information they sort of lose touch with what they’re going to do with it,” Smith said. “The adviser can step back, look at it from a vision of experience and perhaps a little more wisdom.”
Arkansas Business journal Editor Gwen Moritz said that in retrospect, she wished she’d spent more time thinking about what would happen when she published a list of people in the state who have concealed-carry licensees.
Though the information was publicly accessible, the decision to print the names (and their zip codes) came off to some as an attack and was seen by others as unnecessary.
Moritz said she had her reasons for publishing the list. It had previously been accessible to the general public, but the legislature was working to make it private. Other recent legislation allowed churches to decide whether they would allow concealed-carry on their grounds.
While some readers were supportive of her reasoning, — explained in an editor’s note — many outraged readers let Moritz have it. They created a Facebook page titled “Gwen Moritz Breaks the Law.” They slathered the Internet with her contact information and pictures of her children and her home, as well as its floor plan.
Though their anger never changed her mind about whether the list should be public, it did change her mind about the way she handled the situation.
“I was trying to make a point to the legislators who had pretended to be protecting someone’s rights while actually taking away our rights to know this information,” Moritz said.
And though her motive was to protect the public’s right to information, most people didn’t realize that, she said.
“For a student, this would actually be a really good thing to think about — whether your motive can get completely, completely lost, totally and utterly separated from your action,” Moritz said. “Your action needs to stand alone. What did you do? Will anybody look at that and understand what you did? Because in my case, it was way too complicated and way too subtle for a stunt. And I should have known better.”
It’s also important to remind students of the distinction that separates ethical actions from permissible ones.
“I often tell students that there’s a difference between what you’re legally allowed to do and what you’re morally obligated to do,” Smith said. “Just because you have something and you obtained it legally doesn’t necessarily mean you have to use it.”
Moritz said her experience also reminded her that journalists need to focus on their responsibility to readers.
“Just because you can do something should you? That is an ethical question that goes beyond the legal,” Moritz said. “And I often call it the Jurassic Park question. Just because we can clone dinosaurs, does that mean we should?”
She doesn’t think her actions were unethical, but nevertheless Moritz said she made a mistake. She ended up removing the list from the Arkansas Business website, and posting a remorseful editor’s note.
“Is it unethical, did I break some ethical rule?” Moritz said. “I’m not sure what it would be except this: I didn’t think this thing through well enough to anticipate peoples’ reaction that was absolutely predictable and that I ended up hurting people, innocent people, with it.”
Moritz said she tries to approach stories with fairness in mind and a desire to give readers “a true sense” of the issue, event or situation she’s writing about.
“If we want our readers to really understand their world and the issues and the events and the people, I don’t believe at all in ‘gotcha’ kind of journalism,” Moritz said. “I think that’s a disservice.”
Wayne Brasler, an adviser and the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools journalism department chairman, said it’s easy to decide whether information is worth publishing.
“People make this way too complicated,” Brasler said. “It’s news if it impacts other people. That makes it news.”
But instead of reporting on every single campus incident, Brasler said his students look for trends and have real conversations with their sources.
“We try to always look at the big picture and that has kept us from get in trouble,” Brasler said. “You go [to interviews] with a pretty broad idea of what you’re seeing, you engage the person and you talk as two human beings.”
Aliya Hall, the managing and features editor of The Falconer at Elmira High School in Oregon said that making sure she and her sources were on the same page was crucial last winter when she wrote about the experiences of students in the foster system.
Hall and said she and her staff took some precautions before publishing the story in December. Three of her sources were fine with being named, but a fourth requested anonymity, which was granted.
“The concern was I asked them what put them in the foster system in the first place and that would be very touchy for the kids and for their parents if they talked about that,” Hall said. “When I talked about their experiences in the homes, because some people didn’t have the best experiences … [we] wanted to make sure that we weren’t defaming anyone’s character.”
Adviser Jeanie May said she sought legal advice and talked with her principal before publishing the story.
“We wanted to cover our bases so that there weren’t any problems,” she said.
Hall said she had her sources and their foster parents or guardians sign a permission slip saying she could use the information the students gave her along with their names. She said her staff tries to ensure that they are on the same page as their sources.
“We want to make sure that all the parties involved are fully aware of what they’re getting into,” Hall said.
Brasler said looking at a story from the sources’ viewpoints can be helpful to the writers themselves.
“Be holistic,” Brasler said. “You’ll find not only are the results pleasing, but you tend not to get yourself in trouble, if you put yourself in the other person’s shoes.”
By Sara Tirrito, SPLC staff writer.
reports, Spring 2013