When reporters should get involved in the stories they cover

CJR Editor Kyle Pope and our resident management guru Jill Geisler talk about moral dilemmas around when to report and when to help that arise with events like Hurricane Harvey, respecting the line between analysis and opinion, and how to accommodate employees with children in school and still be fair to those without kids.

 

Kyle: The coverage of recent protests, and of Hurricane Harvey, has raised again the question of when or whether reporters should get involved in the stories they’re covering. Obviously, every situation is different, and journalists should be expected to react compassionately to people in need. But is there general advice a newsroom manager can provide on how to deal with these situations?

Jill: The best newsrooms have these conversations before they confront a crisis situation. They start with, “What do we stand for, and how do we live that decision each day?” If we stand for independent journalism, then it means we steer clear of involvements and associations that could bias our judgment and our journalism.

Okay, that was the textbook newsroom leadership and ethics answer. I happen to believe in it. But it’s not enough. Just as we often say: “This action is legal, but is it ethical?” – It’s logical to follow with: “This may be ethical, but is it moral?”  

That’s where the tension lies in extraordinary circumstances. Yes, it is ethical to record or report on an event and not intervene, but if doing so causes harm to others, have we violated a moral principle? Could we, in good conscience, say we were “just doing our job” and “following professional ethics” while others suffered as we failed to act?

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I’ve been impressed with many good ethical choices made by journalists covering hurricane Harvey and its aftermath, well documented by David Bauder of the Associated Press. I’d point to a decision by CNN’s Ed Lavandera as an example of sound ethical and moral thinking under pressure. (And then add a critique, too.)

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Lavandera, plus a CNN producer and photographer, were aboard a rescue boat piloted by a volunteer when they heard a shout for help from inside a flooded home. The solo volunteer struggled to assist a frail elderly couple make their way – with difficulty – onto the boat, so Lavandera and his producer lent a hand. At one point, the reporter asked CNN to cut away from live coverage because one of the people about to exit the home had Alzheimer’s disease. He simply didn’t know enough about her condition to determine whether this televised moment would be traumatic for her and for the audience. This was a value judgment: Human dignity mattered more to him than human drama. If need be, CNN could tell that part of the story later, not live. The decision-making was smart.

Less laudable were the congratulations and praise CNN anchors sent his way as the compelling segment was repeatedly rebroadcast. Yes, it was a great story and worth re-telling – but anchors shouldn’t turn it into a “Bless our Ed” moment when Texas was overflowing with heroic helpers all around him. I bet Ed would be the first to agree.

Crossing the traditional line of objectivity-by-non-participation should be done with care. Here are some questions:

  • What alternatives exist?
  • Will I cause harm by my involvement?
  • Will I cause harm by choosing not to become involved?
  • Can I tell an accurate and unbiased story about something I’ve been part of?
  • If not, should I recuse myself or should others supplement my storytelling?
  • How will I work with editors or managers to maximize  transparency about my decision and role in this story?
  • If I, as a journalist, have done a good deed, how will any coverage we give it be proportional, not elevated above good done by others?

But here’s what I think is even more important:

The most ethical thing journalists can do is stay on this story long after the can’t-look-away rescues are over. Who will be the heroes who tell stories about flood insurance, unpaid mortgages, uninhabitable homes, FEMA processes, scam artists, physical and mental health problems, health insurance, the newly-poor, the always-poor, and the systems that may or may not serve them tomorrow?

 

Kyle: Journalists are still struggling with the lines between facts and analysis and opinion, particularly when it comes to covering the White House. Would a set of newsroom guidelines help?

Jill: I think the struggle you describe has been a great exercise in newsrooms everywhere. In fact, it’s been the kind of workout that builds much-needed muscle.

Today’s journalists have never covered a president who plays so fast and loose with the truth. (Clicking on his PolitiFact “Pants-on-Fire” pages  should require asbestos gloves.)

In addition to his dissembling, President Trump attacks reporters for fact-checking his falsehoods. He tries to paint real news as “fake” and persuade his base that journalists dislike the country they love.

It can be tempting for journalists to respond to this kind of Machiavellian leadership by lowering their standards. Instead, I think they’ve raised them by recognizing that stenographic coverage – simply reporting what the chief executive says or does – is insufficient.

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With their ever-growing muscles, they are challenging untruths, deflections, and false equivalencies – from the Head of State as well as his surrogates. They are asking tough questions, putting perspective around claims, pointing out conflicting or shifting positions and surfacing the behind-the-scenes stories that chaotic leadership creates.

So here is the most concise guideline I’d offer to newsrooms for muscular reporting:

Putting context to coverage requires exceptional skill and commitment. You can’t produce quality analytical reporting without being a student of the news, of history, of politics, and public policy – and without good sourcing. Be bold; but when you say it, prove it.

Expect your managers to demand that level of excellence and provide support to you as you strive for it.

Absent that, you are merely spouting opinion, some of which may be valid and interesting, but it isn’t deep or analytical reporting. If you want to be a pundit, label yourself as such and find an appropriate soap box.

 

Kyle: School is back in session, and employees with kids are going to be pulled in a lot of different directions. How do you accommodate them, while being fair to other people in the newsroom without the demands of children’s schedules?

Jill: I love that you pitch me questions about work-life harmony. As a mom who ran a newsroom for many years, I remember often feeling I was dropping the ball for someone, somehow. On some days it was a staffer or a story when I was tending to family; other times it was my own offspring as I was consumed by the news.

With that in mind, I think the most important thing news managers can do is know their staffers as people with whole lives, and not expect them to check those lives at the newsroom door. Not everyone has kids, but they have parents and extended family members – and pets they cherish, too.

At some time or other, staffers will need time for them – and it will inevitably be inconvenient for you.  As a manager, you should expect your employees to manage their childcare, car pools, and school holidays. But life is never tidy. Loved ones get sick. Children play sports and get into the championship games. Pets pass away.

Be the kind of manager who demands consistent high performance, but knows when to say, “Go home” or “Work from home” – and do it universally. Don’t expect the childless to sacrifice for the parents on your team. Ask people to look out for each other – and not take advantage of each other’s generosity. Having spent years reading 360-degree feedback on newsroom managers in my seminars, I can guarantee you that employees never forget managers who lead with empathy – and rarely forgive those who don’t.

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Jill Geisler coaches managers worldwide. She holds the Bill Plante Chair in Leadership and Media Integrity at Loyola University Chicago. She’s the author of the book, Work Happy: What Great Bosses Know, and the “Q&A: Leadership and Integrity in the Digital Age” podcasts on iTunes U.