Actually, It Is About Ethics In Journalism


Actually, it is about ethics in journalism.

The phrase has been dragged through the mud through the past year by Internet people grotesquely misusing and overusing it (as they do), but in light of recent events it’s worth remembering that “ethics in journalism” is, in fact, a thing.

Ethics are not laws. Laws, as opposed to ethics, are the bare minimum when it comes to standards of conduct. They define what the government can’t stop you from doing, by force. Defending your behavior by saying it isn’t legally prohibited thanks to the First Amendment is the last refuge of the scoundrel — it’s saying you have no defense other than that it isn’t so bad that Congress could pass a law prohibiting it.

I should think this wouldn’t need repeated restating. Everyone who’s been on the Internet or in a workplace or at a party or in any social setting, anywhere, should understand the distinction between being legally in the wrong and simply being an asshole.

We all know the law that says everyone has the right to film in public places. Anyone who’s had the misfortune of achieving “newsworthy” or “celebrity” status is aware of it. As someone who has, in fact, been ambush-interviewed by TMZ I’m well aware of what the law says. But just because paparazzi generally can’t be fined or imprisoned for doing their jobs doesn’t make their jobs noble or justifiable. And it certainly doesn’t mean people who make an effort to make themselves hard to photograph by paparazzi — putting their hands in front of their faces, hurrying away from cameras, angrily telling photographers to “Fuck off” — are somehow morally contemptible for obstructing the sacred right of media to exploit them for money and clicks.

But while people using a telephoto lens to catch Kate Middleton topless are generally agreed to cross the line, the fact that we’re having an angry argument about “campus outrage” is a reminder that we all draw those lines in different places. Today I learned that many people in the media draw that line very differently when reporting on black activists than on white celebrities.

Here’s what happened at the University of Missouri protest that’s gotten everyone arguing this week, if you need a refresher: Yes, there was a group of protesters gathered in a small “tent city” on the campus quad calling for the resignation of Mizzou’s president due to his inaction regarding a longstanding racist campus culture. Yes, many of those protesters had used social media to ask for coverage of the protest while the protest was still ongoing.


But the incident everyone’s talking about occurred after the announcement of President Wolfe’s resignation, when the event had shifted from a protest to a post-protest celebration. More importantly, Wolfe’s resignation, as Libby Nelson from Vox points out in the above link, was driven far more by social media pressure within the school — and, crucially, the strike of Mizzou’s predominantly black football team, which stood to cost Mizzou a million dollars if their next game was forfeited — than external media pressure.

Contrary to some of the enormously entitled and tone-deaf journalists claiming Mizzou protesters should be grateful to the national press for giving them exposure, this victory is one that mostly happened because of the direct financial loss the administration faced if the players’ strike continued. Protesters felt that journalists were intruding on a private celebration of a private victory, and made it clear they didn’t consider journalists welcome at that celebration, putting up signs and making announcements to that effect.

Was this a legally enforceable request? Of course not. But it was an explicit statement they did not give consent to be photographed, and an ethical journalist avoids violating people’s consent without good reason. If I were having lunch with a friend in a public park and I told a stranger with a camera — and, whatever their job description, that’s all a journalist really is — that I’d rather not be photographed, he can still take my picture if he wants. I can’t legally stop him. But he’s an asshole if he does so — or a vulture, or a paparazzo, or a boundary-crossing cad, or whatever word you want to substitute — and I have every right to get mad at him.

Ethical journalists do, of course, sometimes violate other people’s privacy when there’s a good reason to do so. Maybe there’s wrongdoing being uncovered, or secrets being kept from people who need to know them. It’s not a clear, simple line to draw, and it’s one that’s dogged newsrooms since they’ve existed.

But Tim Tai, the student journalist working an assignment for ESPN who went viral for trying to photograph the protesters’ tent city without permission, made it clear he wasn’t trying to document any specific wrongdoing or capture photographic evidence of any specific event. He was just trying to get evocative shots that “told the story” of the protest.

The protesters were justified in thinking that he had everything to gain from his being there — getting paid, getting clicks, getting credit for “telling their story” — whereas the benefit to them was nil. Consider, especially, that having your face appear in a photo linked to anything controversial paints a huge target on your back, and faces are far more easily linked with names in a world of crowdsourced harassment. Indeed, after Tai released his video, Tai himself admits that several of them have received death threats because of his exposure. Two people have since been arrested for making anonymous threats of a mass shooting. Reports have come in of a girl being menaced by men in a pickup truck, a white supremacist taking over Speaker’s Circle, sightings of the KKK on campus.

The people mocking the idea that the protesters needed a “safe space” because they were in no danger have, at the very least, some egg to clean off their faces.

Even ignoring security threats, though, who likes being photographed without their permission? If I were having lunch with a friend in the park I might not fear a threat to my life from being “exposed” but I might simply dislike someone using my image as a source of profit for themselves. My days of being of interest to TMZ are long over, but if I saw a random stranger trying to photograph my face while I was walking down the street I sure as hell would put up my hand to block my face, and become indignant, even intimidating, if they persisted in doing so.

The simple fact that this is a political protest doesn’t make taking photos of the protesters’ tents to “tell the story” newsworthy — it’s the same excuse people use to violate the privacy of elected officials by photographing them walking around or eating, so their articles can have a higher clickthrough rate by having relevant images attached. It’s “news” as a profit center, plain and simple, not news as an instrument of social change.

Yes, I agree that crossing the line to get directly physical — pushing, shoving, putting your hands on the reporter’s camera — is assault, and beyond the pale. No, I do not condone the protesters taking their resistance to that level.

But do I sympathize with them and not with the journalists in this situation? Absolutely. The journalists, whatever romantic language they use to describe their profession, are there to make money. The protesters are fighting for their rights and their lives.

And the disgraceful response today by my fellow chattering-class members making a living talking about things other people are doing has only cemented my sympathy. Erik Wemple’s breathtaking arrogance in his op-ed calling for the firing of faculty and staff members who participated in the protest takes the cake here. Religious studies professor Chip Callahan never assaults or touches Tai; he puts up his hands to block Tai’s view. Tai’s allowed to stand in a public space and take pictures; Callahan is allowed to stand in a public space and ruin Tai’s shots of people who specifically said they didn’t want to be photographed.

But to Wemple, Callahan has violated the spirit of the First Amendment by daring to show any disrespect to a fellow journalist. Wemple goes so far as to stalk Callahan’s Twitter feed for damning quotes, noting that it is in fact a protected feed but putting the word “protected” in mocking scare quotes. After all, if a journalist doesn’t need permission to photograph someone then obviously they don’t need permission to reproduce text written in confidence. (Especially when the number of people who follow your protected Twitter is as many as 390, a staggeringly paltry number in terms of the Twitterverse but one Wemple thinks is the same as making your feed basically public.)

To me, the disgraceful reaction I’ve seen today speaks to many regressive biases in our supposedly “liberal” media culture. There’s the dismissal of black students’ pain and black students’ trauma as unreal and unserious. If I told you that I, personally, was suffering from a recent loss — a lost relative, a lost home, even just a lost job — and I asked you to respect me by not badgering me for interviews or following me and photographing me during this time — few people would call my request unreasonable, much less “censorious.”

But when black people collectively gather to mourn black pain, no such respect is given. Throwing Carol Hanisch’s slogan to the wind, journalists decide that if something is “political” then it can’t be “personal” and calls for respect go out the window.

There’s the privileging of “journalists” as a special class of people deserving special protections, even though we live in a world where that distinction is rapidly eroding into meaninglessness. The fact that Tim Tai was getting paid by ESPN to get those pics doesn’t fundamentally entitle him to take pictures of people who don’t want to be photographed.

He has no greater moral claim to those photos than I would if I just wanted to stand there and Periscope events on my Twitter feed, or take photos and put them on my blog. And yet people are rallying in defense of Tai because he is a “journalist” in a way I doubt they would if the person shouted out of the tent city for taking pictures were a random stranger without a professional byline.

We live in an age where, for better or for worse, mainstream media sites frequently lag behind social media when it comes to covering breaking news. We live in an age where many activists are extremely conscious of how the news in Ferguson was sensationalized and riddled with inaccuracies, how no matter what ideals journalists claim to hold, the profit motive will always have a distorting effect on coverage. (After all, giving space to the “other side of the story” about how Mike Brown was “no angel” was certainly good for clicks.)

We live in an age, in other words, where being a “professional” journalist — someone who’s paid to take pictures, rather than someone who takes them for their own sake — is going to be greeted by activists with suspicion rather than automatic deference. A lot of the outraged thinkpieces going around, especially Wemple’s, seem fueled mainly by the lack of deference you get nowadays for having a press pass.

I consider this no great loss. Journalism — ethical journalism — has been a great force for good in the world, but it’s also been a great force for senseless, pointless intrusion in people’s lives and destruction of people’s privacy for nothing more than quick bucks off of gossip. Any journalism student who denies this needs to retake their history classes.

The first and central question journalists should ask before they start writing anything is whether they’re helping or harming by telling a particular story — what public interest is served by revealing certain information, and whether that interest is sufficient to outweigh the necessary harm caused by compromising someone’s privacy.

The great irony, after all, is that the Gamergaters who’ve made “ethics in journalism” a meme went after games journalists precisely for being ethical — because game journalists refused to participate in ruining a woman’s life over scurrilous gossip, because they didn’t take the convenient, amoral position of being “truth absolutists” who never ask “Should I publish this?” but “Am I allowed to publish this?”

Many people, some professional journalists, some mere amateurs, prefer to focus on the second question. Legally, everything posted on is “public” and can be reproduced without permission or attribution. Legally, any photo you take with your phone in a public place belongs to you and can be freely shared with your pervert friends on Reddit. Legally, if someone is a “public figure” the bar is set very high for what pointless, baseless, cruel rumors you can print about them before they can sue for defamation. Legally, if you out a trans person and she commits suicide you can’t be held at fault simply for reporting the truth.

The people who do these things aren’t criminals. But they’re not ethical people, either. And they shouldn’t be surprised when they get a hostile reaction from the people they’re covering — especially as people develop more and more ways to get their stories out directly.

You can say that taking photos of protesters who’d rather not be photographed wasn’t the end of the world, that forming a human chain to try to block Tai’s view was an overreaction that ultimately led to actionable assault. But then I’d say the media blitz shaming the protesters in response — that’s led to the protesters recanting their past position and all three members of the Mizzou staff Wemple targeted in his hit piece apologizing — was far more of an overreaction.

I’ve been to many protests, including ones where members of the media were firmly but politely asked to stay away. I’ve written about a protest I’ve been to in the first person — not as a journalist but as an activist, but still conflicted over the fact that, as a paid columnist, I’m profiting off of someone else’s pain, that I’m taking the incredibly egotistical stance of telling someone else’s story in my words.

I agonized over writing that story, batting it around with my wife and my friends, trying to figure out how to be honest and real while being respectful of others’ privacy. I try to untangle my own motives before submitting anything for publication. I try to ask who’s going to be helped and who’s going to be harmed by what I write, and whether the help and harm is going toward deserving targets.

I can’t say I’ve succeeded all the time in being ethical. But I’d never publicly say that that’s not a concern of mine, that I don’t need to ask the question of whether I’m violating someone’s privacy as long as I have the legal right to publish. I’d never be so incredibly full of myself to think the fact that I get checks from major media organizations in the mail makes me a superior breed of human being who never has to ask permission. I’d never look at a story about systemic racism in higher education and decide the real story is about whether journalists, in particular, aren’t receiving enough deference as a profession. I can’t imagine the arrogance it would take to intentionally steer a conversation away from #BlackLivesMatter toward #JournalistFeelingsMatter.

But for other esteemed members of the Fourth Estate this set of priorities apparently comes naturally. Which is why, today, I’m glad I just call myself a “writer” and not a “journalist.”