Choice words for harsh times
By David Brandt
It’s about time a reporter said “fucking nigger” on CNN.
Before you blow a gasket over my lede, let’s revisit this story: CNN reporter Susan Candiotti read the following on air as reportedly posted from the Facebook account of a shooting suspect in Tulsa, Okla.: “Today is two years that my dad has been gone, shot by a fucking nigger.”
The phrase was that of the suspect, not the words of Candiotti, who warned viewers about the offensive nature of the statement before she read it. Anchor Fredricka Whitfield apologized for the use of the phrase immediately following the report.
A little more than a week later, the Los Angeles Times published photos of U.S. troops posing with body parts of Afghan insurgents who reportedly blew themselves up by accident. The photos were given to the newspaper by a soldier in the 82nd Airborne Division and included images such as (from the story):
“Two soldiers posed holding a dead man’s hand with the middle finger raised. A soldier leaned over the bearded corpse while clutching the man’s hand. Someone placed an unofficial platoon patch reading ‘Zombie Hunter’ next to other remains and took a picture.”
Both of these media incidents drew criticism in the days that followed each one, raising questions about standards practiced by each news organization. In the case of CNN, according to the Poynter Institute, at least one critic suggested that the network was “ginning up a race war,” an opinion I personally believe to be utter garbage – history teaches us that no one ever benefited from a race war. Just ask the city of Los Angeles.
The fact of the matter, however, is that this sort of reporting doesn’t happen frequently enough. In case you’re just entering a career in journalism, then you’ve likely been introduced to media law through a college course or, if you like to go about it the hard way, trial and error in your first job. You’ve undoubtedly learned about obscenity and its relationship to the First Amendment.
In case you snoozed through the lesson, the former is not protected by the latter. But since we’ve seemingly taken to furious discourse daily through near absolutely free speech on the Internet, the question I have to raise is this: What’s obscene nowadays?
Have you ever read the comment boards on Entertainment Weekly’s website? Even a story about the top 10 roles of Will Ferrell can draw out the aggregated ire of a Web browsing public that just seems to feel the need to verbally beat the hell out of each other.
My Twitter and Facebook feeds alone are full of tweets and posts in which users post a variation of obscenity – f—, a$$, $&^%*#&!, etc. (And doing that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re any nicer than the tweeter calling Rush Limbaugh or Keith Olbermann an “asshole.”)
Many Americans (more than ever before it seems) are just plain ugly toward each other in public discourse. We see it in our politics. We see it at our kids’ soccer games. We see it on our smartphones. So, why is it bothersome to hear the word “nigger” in a TV news report or seeing dead bodies in the daily newspaper?
Well … because it is really bothersome. As a reporter, you still carry the weight of responsibility in your reporting. So before you go tell your editor that the blogger from SPJ said it was OK for you freely use offensive words and curse throughout your stories and other content, learn the standards and practices set by your news organization.
When situations arise in which your reporting may push the line from credible toward obscene, whether in a quote, photo, or op-ed, ask your editors directly just how you should approach it. Don’t guess at it and turn your story in without recognizing policy … your editors may lower their expectations of you and your maturity, and that’s only damaging your career.
But if you have justification for including an element of your news story that could be considered obscene by the readers, then don’t back down at the start. Argue the relativity and show how the story can be less informative without it. You’re going to have to sell your editor on the story just as much as you have to sell the reader on it with your lede.
Unfortunately, for many of you in the next generation of journalists, your job is or will likely be to report bad news. And sometimes, the news you’re tasked with reporting is worse than bad – even obscene. But at least it will be the whole truth. And that should be the standard by which news operates.
David Brandt is the Web managing editor for the Institute of Industrial Engineers, where he writes and edits Web content, produces new media projects, and writes for a monthly magazine. You can follow him on Twitter @iamdavidbrandt.
Tags: advice, broadcast news, ethics, Gen J, Gen Jers, generation j, journalism, new media, newsroom, newsrooms, race, race ethics, reputation, Society of Professional Journalists, spj, training, tv news, twitter, young reporters