It seems that every other week in 2015, journalists aired or published reports, particularely those about race and culture, that contained bias and/or distorted facts
Turkey’s Media Ethics Council announced last week that it would not distribute this year’s media ethics awards due to the decline in media credibility in the eyes of the public. Perhaps the Society of Professional Journalists, which honors ethics in U.S. journalism, should take similar steps. It seems that every other week, journalists air or publish reports that are biased, groundless, or distort facts.
Just this month, for example, CNN correspondents Ann O’Neill and Aaron Cooper filed their December 1 story “First officer goes on trial in Freddie Gray death.” It took just seven words–“the son of an illiterate heroin addict”– to set social media users abuzz with criticism.
The description of victim Freddie Gray enraged conscientious readers who wanted to know, first, how this information was even relevant to Gray’s death and the trial of the officers who stand accused of killing him, second, whether it was fact or conjecture, and third, whether the description was intentionally used to criminalize the victim. Then there was the obvious question: Would a white victim’s mother be described in the same way? The online outcry did not go unnoticed by CNN, which amended the article and removed the reference to Gray’s mother entirely. In an “editor’s note” that sits at the foot of the article, the fact the change was made is indicated; however, editors did not explain what change was made—namely, what words were deleted—and, crucially, why.
Many critics contend that the description of Gray’s mother was one of just many examples of media bias informed by racism and white privilege, and it is certainly that. It’s also symptomatic of deeper problems at CNN, where unevenly applied ethical expectations and standards are subjecting reporters to a climate in which the line between what is appropriate and what is not is growing increasingly unclear, especially where race, gender, or religion (and, often, all three) are involved as key elements of a story. By extension, of course, it is subjecting readers to news that is questionable in its reliability and credibility.
The latest concern about CNN’s increasingly murky ethics occurred again this month when the network, along with MSNBC, ambulance chased the San Bernardino shooting by airing a live feed of its reporters combing through the personal effects of Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, the shooters suspected in killing 14 people at a social service center that provides support to people with developmental disabilities. After the FBI conducted an investigation in the couple’s townhouse, landlord Doyle Miller invited media in, joking “Grab what you want.” And grab they did– footage, at least, poking through the detritus of the shooters’ lives.
Before the Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald blasted CNN for its ethical violations, AllDigitocracy reached out to officials at the cable network to discuss media ethics, generally. One CNN official declined to speak on the record without first getting permission, and another spokeswoman did not return phone calls or emails.
Once associated primarily with outlets such as FOX News, shock-factor “reporting,” on the one hand, and wrist-slapping comparatively minor offenses, on the other, has become something of a modus operandi for CNN in recent years. “CNN long ago realized there wasn’t enough breaking news in the world to fill 24 hours or enough money to fund that kind of news operation, so the network turned to commentary disguised as ‘analysis’,” says Aileen Gallagher, associate professor of multiplatform journalism in the magazine department at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communication. It allowed—and continues to allow—journalists like Don Lemon to turn news into a sideshow, treating subjects and sources with a shocking lack of tact and respect.
In 2014 alone, CNN anchor Don Lemon received a DART Award from the Columbia Journalism Review as one of the worse journalists in the country. Lemon earned the award several times over, and continues to push ethical boundaries to the point where many now say “enough is enough.” Meanwhile, Elise Labott, CNN’s Global Affairs Correspondent, got slapped with a two-week suspension for a comparatively innocuous tweet posted on the social network November 19: “House passes bill that could limit Syrian refugees. Statue of Liberty bows head in anguish.” It didn’t take long for management to react.
More than five thousand twitter users retweeted Labott’s “anguish” tweet. More than seven thousand favorited it. And yet, in just under eight hours, Labott all but retracted the passionate sentiment in the previous tweet, returning to twitter to offer a contrite apology: “Everyone, It was wrong of me to editoralize. My tweet was inappropriate and disrespectful. I sincerely apologize.”
She hasn’t tweeted since.
“When an organization behaves inconsistently with their ethics policies and signals that they send, whey they punish one thing and not others, there’s a bunch of things that can be going on,” said Kelly McBride, Vice President for Academic Programs at The Poynter Institute. “A lot of the inconsistencies are not necessarily intentional. They are a symptom of something, but it’s hard to say what.
“It could be that the organization just doesn’t have enough diversity,” continued McBride who specializes in journalism ethics. She said the entire industry has lost ground when it comes to both diversity and credibility. But do the two go hand in hand?
“Possibly,” McBride responded. “Or perhaps they have diversity, but they don’t listen to the people that they have. And so the organization might have a listening problem, which could also be part of a diversity problem. There’s really no excuse because as news organizations, we have to pay attention to how people are perceiving our actions and address them as clearly and transparently as possible.”
If anyone still believes journalists are wholly objective, checking their beliefs, opinions, and biases at the newsroom door like some kind of dangerous contraband, the Labott debacle was the latest example that served to disabuse them of that notion. But for a news network that muffles a rather tame opinion about politicians’ response to the Syrian refugee crisis while simultaneously allowing—if not outright encouraging—reporters to storm a crime scene, Don Lemon to victim-blame, and hitting “Publish” on stories that clearly haven’t been examined for racial and other biases and then covering their tracks, as it were, when the public calls them to account, CNN is increasingly treading in dangerous waters. Unfortunately, the people affected most by managerial decisions when a journalist is deemed to have crossed an inviolable ethical line are those who have little, if any, say in how the news is produced, published, and disseminated, and when the goalposts are changing constantly, as they seem to be at CNN, it becomes increasingly difficult to enforce real accountability.
Yet CNN is hardly alone in needing to really confront the issue of a standardized ethics policy. The New York Times is facing similar situations, as the recent erasure of the “gentle loner” description of the Colorado Planned Parenthood shooter proves. Again, after an outcry from readers who called out the description of Robert Dear as one that was undergirded by unconscious racist and sexist bias and was, frankly, completely unbelievable given his record of “occasional” violence, especially toward women, the Times changed the language of the piece to read “an itinerant loner.” Unlike CNN, however, the Times offered no managerial addendum whatsoever, not even one indicating the article had been altered from its original version.
Racism, victim-blaming, and making mountains out of molehills when a news organization has much more insidious, systemic problems to be focusing on are but three symptoms of the ways in which standards and ethics at major news outlets are failing both news stories and their readers. Clicks and ratings tied to a 24-hour news cycle and buoyed by journalists’ off-camera/off-A1 engagement with viewers and readers on social media—increasingly, a requirement of their jobs—have all contributed to an erosion of ethics and a race to the bottom mentality in which it’s more important to break a story or sensationalize it than to report it accurately, fairly, and with respect for all involved.
“Informality is the enemy of equity,” says Angie Aker, former editor-in-chief of MoveOn.org and currently a writer for Upworthy. “When policies aren’t committed to and applied uniformly,” she points out, “it gives those in power not only discretion that can be used to reward people you like and/or punish those you dislike (deliberately or not), but it creates ample space for inconsistency, and therefore, muddled messages to journalists about what’s acceptable ethically. It practically invites bias to steer.”
SPJ may still find a news outlet to which it can give its ethics award. Fortunately, readers, at least, are taking their own role seriously, calling out the violations as they see them.