Ethical reporting is a must to help the country heal from a week of wall-to-wall violence
Journalists reporting on the deadly shooting rampage in Dallas, as well as on the killings that led to that carnage, are no doubt tired and dealing with emotional strains while trying to do herculean jobs. It’s easy to lose focus of how to stay on top of this story in a responsible way. There’s so much happening that it’s hard for journalists to understand what’s going on, let alone explain that to readers and viewers.
Here are a few suggestions:
Seek truth and report it. First and foremost, reporters must remember to provide context to help readers and viewers digest all that’s happening around them. Remember that one person does not represent an entire race, nor an entire movement. Mica Xavier Johnson, identified by police as the shooter, told police he was not affiliated with the peaceful Black Lives Matter protest Thursday evening. This one sentence should be included in every story, every tweet, every broadcast produced today.
Let’s be clear: Johnson did not represent Black Lives Matter, or African-Americans overall, for that matter. He was just one person filled with hate.
And while we’re all in a rush to learn more about the shooting suspect, let’s not forget to tell the stories of the five Dallas police officers who were killed. And we also shouldn’t forget to tell the stories of the citizens who tried to help those officers last night by protesting peacefully.
Finally, we should not forget the reason why people were protesting. Context matters. It’s important that we be as comprehensive in our coverage as possible. Do not lose sight of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile or the countless other black men, women and children recently killed by police.
Avoid hyperbole. Please avoid comparisons to 9/11 as CNN has been doing since last night. This is irresponsible, bad journalism. Unless the police come out to say something different, this has nothing to do with coordinated attacks connected with religious extremism.
This has everything to do with a U.S. Army veteran who wrongfully sought revenge against innocent police officers. The alleged killer in Dallas was upset about the police-involved deaths this week in Baton Rouge, La., and Falcon Heights, Minn. He had no right to take the law into his own hands against any police officer.
At the same time, don’t downplay events either. Black lives are every bit as important as blue lives, and vice versa. Our reporting should reflect just that.
Don’t inflame. Emotions and tensions are high enough. Do not do what The New York Post did this morning when it splashed the words “Civil War” across its front page. Such an irresponsible action does nothing but cause harm and is in direct violation of our code of ethics as journalists. This is not a war, at least not yet. Let’s not help it become one. This means not airing photos of the shooter’s mother’s house as some cable news networks are doing. This means calmly, professionally reporting the facts, not adding fuel to the fire. It also means avoiding rash, over-the-top reactions to developing news. And it means being fair and as accurate as possible.
In fact, journalists should avoid the blame-game altogether. Passing judgment is not our job; reporting is.
Don’t jump the gun. Everybody wants to be first. But it is more important than ever to get it right. Not getting it right could mean the difference between a possible loss of more innocent lives and maintaining the peace. Be accountable and transparent. Tell readers and viewers where you are getting your information, and how. Explain ethical choices, clarify facts, answer questions about fairness, and expose unethical conduct by authorities and by fellow journalists.
Watch your tweets. Only tweet, or retweet, what you know are facts. Don’t editorialize. No biases, misinformation or ill-formed opinions should be included in your tweets. It’s easy to send out a tweet, but near impossible to take it back.
Be compassionate, yet objective. There’s a balance. Try to be empathetic without compromising principle. Yes, we have a job to do, but we must be respectful and mindful that people on all sides are hurting. And by all means, don’t be a jerk. At such a painful, sensitive moment in history, nobody has time for that.
Now is not the time to retreat. We are reporters. Our job is to record history, a history that is in the making right now. It’s more important now than it was a day ago to go into the communities and neighborhoods we’re supposed to be serving. Sure, you may be scared or reluctant. Get over it. And when you do go out into the communities you’re supposed to be serving, don’t go armed with a full camera crew. Teams of two are okay. Put on your best walking shoes, go into neighborhoods and talk with people you don’t normally see — people you don’t normally want to see.
This is our opportunity to provide inclusive, accurate, fair and complete coverage of the communities we serve.
It’s time to listen. When you go into communities and neighborhoods you don’t normally cover, go to listen. Residents will be skeptical. Don’t get defensive when they inevitably criticize you or your news organization. Be open, instead, to their concerns. Be willing to hear them out. Be a check on power, not complicit with it. Our job is to report all sides of a story. You can’t do that just by chewing the fat with the mayor and police.
Last, but not least, take care of yourself. Self-care at this time is very important. If you feel yourself getting emotional, it’s okay to take a break. Do some yoga. Yell. I’m told it’s cathartic. Meditate. Drink plenty of water. Take time for you and be intentional about it. Covering violent crime is traumatic enough. Add the dynamics of race and police on top of it, and it can be downright exhausting. Take time to let yourself exhale, which will help with emotional healing.
Tracie Powell is the founder of AllDigitocracy.