Posts Tagged ‘police’


Ethics Week 2015: Minimizing Harm in Times of Conflict

Photo Credit/Robert Kuykendall

Photo Credit/Robert Kuykendall

Freshman journalism students are often asked to define the word journalist.


The lesson at the end of the exercise is that the definition varies from person to person. Some words make repeat appearances – like truth and bias, but the most obvious word tends to be overlooked.

In my mind, journalists are humans.

Once again, a large U.S. city is being thrust into the national spotlight as people destroy neighborhoods in the wake of a person’s death. Freddie Gray died one week after being arrested by the Baltimore police department. Sometime during the arrest, he suffered a catastrophic injury, according to CNN.

As humans, journalists should understand that they must take care of themselves when covering unpredictable situations, like street protests.

The Columbia Journalism School’s Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma is an invaluable tool for journalists covering traumatic and possibly dangerous events. During similar events in Ferguson, Missouri, the Dart Center republished a January 2011 tip sheet on covering volatile street protests.

“A press pass by itself is no protection against the probability of being caught in a barrage of rocks, police batons, gunfire, shrapnel or drifts of tear gas,” according to the document.

Several experienced journalists share lessons they learned while covering volatile street protests in the document. Some tips include:

  • Be mindful of crowds and know their moods before “diving in.”
  • Have a quick exit route.
  • Interview leaders on both sides to show you’re just doing your job.
  • Bring a gas mask. Or, bandannas soaked in vinegar, and possibly a pair of swimming goggles.
  • Get enough sleep and food.
  • Bring water.
  • “When in doubt, don’t take the risk.”

Once journalists feel secure, their attention must turn to their jobs. They must hold on to their principles – even in unpredictable situations – to act with integrity and “ensure the free exchange of information that is accurate, fair and thorough,” according to the Society’s Code of Ethics.

A rapidly evolving and unstable situation is no excuse for carelessness in reporting. While text, images and audio pour into a newsroom, it’s crucial that journalists continue to act as gatekeepers to serve the public good.

For example, a journalist must weigh the consequences of publishing or broadcasting unverified reports. They must also determine whether the good of broadcasting graphic images or audio outweighs the potential harm to the people on the receiving end of the media.

While journalists and their organizations may feel social media is the competitor to scoop, “neither speed nor format excuses inaccuracy,” according to the Society’s Code.

Journalists should always take time to review the Code before major events or marathon reporting sessions. Especially in a frantic event, those few moments of reflection may lead to more responsible reporting and ultimately less harm to journalists and to the people on the receiving end of news reports.

“Scrutinize the guidelines, and a common theme emerges,” says the Ethics Committee’s position paper on covering grief, tragedy and victims. “Most important, journalists have a responsibility to report these stories in a careful – not careless – fashion.”

#Pointergate Revisited

(Updated on November 21, 2014 to include information from a statement made by the Society’s Minnesota Pro Chapter.)

On Tuesday night, I published a blog post about a report that aired last week on KSTP, the ABC affiliate in the Minneapolis-Saint Paul metropolitan area. The story became known as #pointergate on Twitter. On Thursday, the station aired a report defending the original story.

In the original report, Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges is posing in a picture with an unidentified man flashing “known” gang signs, according to KSTP.

The new story is reported by Stephen Tellier, who is not the reporter of the original story – Jay Kolls.

“5 EYEWITNESS NEWS admits, and reported, that the poses struck by Hodges and Gordon appear to be playful — simple pointing — and it’s hard to understand why such a seemingly innocuous photo could be potentially dangerous,” Tellier writes on KSTP’s website. “But police say the mere existence of it could put the public, and possibly police, in danger.”

As I asked in my original post, if KSTP believes its sources that the picture can cause violence toward police and the public, why would the station continue to broadcast it across the Twin Cities?

The new report is somewhat more specific on the source who brought the photo to their attention. Tellier writes that it’s a “local law enforcement source — outside the Minneapolis Police Department.”

The report says KSTP has “taken the picture to eight active police officers with multiple agencies.” Those officers – along with a retired officer – all “strongly agreed the picture was problematic,” Tellier writes. Yet, none of the active police officers are named or appear on camera.

Additionally, Tellier reiterates that KSTP concealed the identity of the man posing with the mayor and the name of the community organization that put on the event, where the photo was taken, because he “nor the group were the focus of the story — Hodges was.”

Tellier writes that other organizations made the man the focus of the report, and “5 EYEWITNESS NEWS feels it necessary to provide additional context on his recent history.”

The report then launches into a detailed description of the man’s arrest record and pictures lifted from his Instagram account.

While the man’s identity has been made public since KSTP’s original report, the question remains: Why is his arrest record, court documents and personal pictures relevant to the story? The station already established in its first report that its sources say the man is not in a gang.

The fact that a person has a criminal history does not give journalists license to publish or broadcast that information across the Internet – unless appropriate. “Balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort,” according to the Society’s Code. “Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness.”

KSTP may say the man was not the focus of the first story, but the beginning of the original report includes a detailed description of the man’s court records.

Last Sunday, I sent Jay Kolls, the reporter of the original story, a list of questions. On Monday evening I resent those questions to him and the station’s news director, who is currently out of the office. I did not receive a response.

I can’t say what response I hoped to see from KSTP after its original report, but I know it wasn’t what the community received on Thursday.

In all likelihood, the Twin Cities will move on and #pointergate will fade to the pages of case studies. Stories like this tend to leave a stain, however. KSTP will be wearing it for a long while.


 

UPDATE

The Society’s Minnesota Pro Chapter and other local journalism groups released a statement on November 19 “expressing their concern and calling for KSTP to disavow the story.”

In addition to issuing its statement, the Minnesota Pro Chapter and other local journalism organizations “will host a public forum on the ethical issues raised by this story at Cowles Auditorium on the West Bank campus of the University of Minnesota — on Dec. 8, 2014 at 7 p.m.”

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