According to the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, journalists are supposed to:
- Take responsibility for the accuracy of their work
- Verify information before releasing it
- Use original sources whenever possible
- Diligently seek subjects of news coverage to allow them to respond to criticism or allegations of wrongdoing
- Provide context
- Take special care not to misrepresent or oversimplify in promoting, previewing or summarizing a story
- Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable
- Give voice to the voiceless; boldly tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience
- Seek sources whose voices we seldom hear
- Avoid stereotyping
- Journalists should examine the ways their values and experiences may shape their reporting
- Label advocacy and commentary, and never deliberately distort facts or context, including visual information
#Pointergate fails every point listed above. In case you’ve missed it, the ABC affiliate in Minneapolis, Minn. aired a news report that suggests the city’s mayor, Betsy Hodges, and a neighborhood activist, Navell Gordon, flashed gang signs at each other in a photograph. The incident, also known as #pointergate, sparked widespread condemnation via social media, with Twitter users posting thousands of memes mocking the segment. And rightfully so.
Despite calls for KSTP, and the reporter behind #pointergage, Jay Kolls, to apologize and to retract the story, neither has happened. National attention in the story has waned, and the number of fiery tweets have dwindled. But journalism is still left with yet another black stain on our already sagging reputation because, as one media critic says, Kolls’ and KSTP’s “journalistic malpractice.”
KSTP is “not in a gray ethical area here, they were in another zip code when it comes to how they approached this story,” said Bob Collins, a media critic who discussed the scandal on Minnesota Public Radio Monday morning. Even Minneapolis conservative radio host Joe Soucheray lambasted Kolls and company for its poor reporting. It’s probably the first and only time conservative and mainstream media agree on something.
In today’s media climate, local news stations are struggling to hold onto viewers and expand audience. Reporters are under tremendous pressure to find stories that not only connect with local audiences, but content that will garner clicks on social media. KSTP achieved both last week, albeit in a very negative way that not only hurts the station, but the journalism profession too.
While those of us in the national media move on to more current matters, tweets are still trickling in asking Twitter users to sign a petition calling for KSTP to apologize to Gordon, the community activist, and pleading with advertisers to drop support of the newscast. Still others say they will no longer watch the station while at least one pundit for the KSTP has resigned.
Besides collecting signatures what’s next for KSTP and Kolls, and how can they move past #pointergate?
Journalists, including Jay Kolls and others at KSTP had a duty to find and report the truth; they failed. Now they need to fix it.
- To start with, they can give the Minneapolis community what it’s asking for: An apology. As Collins said, it was KSTP’s “journalistic malpractice that made it a story in the first place.” Kolls and his station also owe viewers an explanation for how they got the story so wrong. With ratings for local news in free-fall, KSTP can ill-afford to let down viewers by losing their trust. That’s exactly what happened as Kolls failed to report, in context, how the photograph came about. Kolls should have also taken the time to confirm and verify what local police told him was happening in the photograph. All he had to do was call the police chief for confirmation, after all, she was there with the mayor and Gordon.
- Follow SPJ’s Code of Ethics listed at the top of this page. Not only did KSTP air a blurred photo of Gordon’s, but also the shirt that he wore that clearly identified him as a voting rights advocate. To show him as an advocate undermined the news station’s narrative – and the police account – that Gordon was nothing more than a thug and criminal. So they blurred out those elements in the photo. That’s a huge ethical breach, an offense that leads to termination in most situations; it also makes the news station more complicit in the deception. One can’t let facts complicate the narrative. Not only that, but KSTP has yet to correct or update the story it originally reported, failed to verify all of the information before the story aired, failed to use all original sources, basing #pointergate on the word of two people who weren’t even on the scene when the photo was taken. Furthermore, most viewers knew almost immediately, that KSTP’s story lacked context, perspective and severely misrepresented facts. Instead of giving voice to the voiceless, KSTP took the words of those in power who apparently have an agenda, and a grudge, against the city’s mayor. And instead of holding the powerful police union accountable, the news station allowed itself, and worse yet, Gordon, to be used by the union in perpetuating that grudge. That’s the epitome of irresponsible journalism. That KSTP failed to avoid stereotyping goes without saying. Lastly, based on Kolls’ tweets, instead of reporting this story as objectively as possible, he allowed his own limited perspectives about young black men to color the news. I can’t say what was in Kolls’ heart and mind when he reported #pointergate, but based on his tweets, there’s an obvious bias, one that should have given him pause before the story went to air.During the interview with conservative radio host Joe Soucheray Kolls said: “There are some people who don’t like the story, and there are people who do like the story. I just put it out there because they came to me and said that this is preposterous.”Proof that he still doesn’t get it. Yes, #pointergate is preposterous. And it should have been retracted days ago.
- Some are calling for Kolls to be fired, and almost anybody else would have been. But because of his privilege, and perhaps his tenure with the station, Kolls remains. Because he will likely keep his job, Kolls and his producer should take a refresher course in journalism 101, familiarizing themselves with rudimentary news-gathering tools and techniques. Both Kolls and his producer should be reprimanded, written-up and maybe even suspended. Kolls alone should be suspended based on his childish tweets (he and his daughter took to Twitter, calling Gordon names). People have been fired for far less.
- Since it is unlikely Kolls, or any of the others who played a role in this fiasco, will be fired, undergoing diversity training should be required.
- KSTP should also re-evaluate its relationship with local police, as well as the kind of relationship it wants to have with its audience. The station must most certainly rebuild trust with viewers if it wants to practice journalism, not spread rumors. Kolls and KSTP need to figure out if they want to serve as watchdogs on the public’s behalf, or as mouthpieces for those in power.
- And last, the station needs to hire more diverse talent, especially behind the camera and in management. Having someone in place who could have stopped a story in its tracks, or at least pushed Kolls to ask tougher questions, is apparently lacking at KSTP. Hopefully human resources is drafting job descriptions right now.