Even ethical journalism can have collateral damage

Barney Moss, via Pixabay.

Over five years ago, I lost my father to a homicide during a home invasion. By some miracle, my mother survived. We endured a media circus, and then tried to heal and move on with our lives. We thought it was behind us, until recently, when Frontline published an article that made us the subjects of a story focused on something else entirely, and ended up re-victimizing our family.

The story, first published this spring in partnership with Wired and the Marshall Project, focused on a man wrongfully accused of murder. He was eventually exonerated when investigators discovered that his DNA had been inadvertently transferred by a first responder he interacted with that day. It raised important questions about forensic analysis and criminal justice, and in particular, the idea that DNA is foolproof evidence.

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The crime scene for this story was my parent’s living room, where my father was killed. Photos of my father’s fingernails, my family’s ransacked home, and the duct tape used to bind my parents’ hands and mouths were featured online. There were descriptions of crime scene photos of my father’s body, along with details of how my mother was attacked, even detailing the nightmares she suffers as a result. My parents’ marital history was extensively examined, and criminal record checks were made on both of them.

I believe it was an invasion of our family’s privacy. While I agree with the newsworthiness of the story, the way it was handled made me question whether Frontline’s editorial team put their own commercial and professional interests ahead of my family’s grief. It’s a lesson worth examining for reporters everywhere covering sensational stories where real families also are suffering.

Professionally, I understood the importance of the story. I’m a former documentary filmmaker, an advertising industry veteran, founder of two tech startups, and previously worked in roles in government and philanthropy that support journalists. Currently, I am working to help encourage ethics in the technology industry.

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For me, the promotional teasers on social media were worse than the piece itself: They featured an audio recording of my mother, frantic and distraught in the worst moments of her life, calling 9-1-1 to report the crime. This audio is played over police body camera footage of first responders arriving on the scene, with my father’s dead body clearly visible on the floor. And this was to promote a story on accidental DNA transfer. To date, the video has received over 24,000 views on Twitter.

The photos, videos, and court transcripts Frontline used to build their story are in the public record, in a courthouse, where one must physically appear to get them. But just because something is legally public does not make it right for journalists to amplify it across as many platforms as possible. The language of privacy law was designed to keep these records in relative obscurity to protect private citizens like my family members.

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I was also stunned to discover plans for a virtual reality experience of the scene of my father’s murder. When I asked Frontline leadership in a phone call if they had considered the implications of putting such content online, I recall them saying that because the piece was only intended for VR headsets, it would reach fewer people. (Frontline’s VR partner says this project is currently on hold.)

Editor’s note: In response to questions from CJR, Raney Aronson (Frontline), Bill Keller (The Marshall Project), and Nicholas Thompson (Wired) issued the following statement: “We understand that our story triggered painful memories for the family. Anticipating that, we took great pains to avoid sensational details and to include only material essential to telling this important  story. We are sorry Ms. Kumra continues to take issue with our reporting and editorial decisions; senior editors from all three organizations listened to her concerns and took them into consideration—prior to publication and in the many weeks afterwards. With regards to the digital video previewing the story, we did not identify the Kumra family, show their images, say whose voice was being heard on the 9-1-1 call, or even name the city where the crime took place.”

I reached out to Jan Schaffer, the ombudsman for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a funder of Frontline. Schaffer critiqued their handling of this matter in a statement after I brought up these issues to her: “In today’s landscape, where the public has lost so much trust in the media and is all too aware of efforts to drive traffic, perhaps it’s time to embrace a do-less-harm policy, one that embraces a more generous dose of empathy.”

PBS and The Marshall Project, partners in this particular story, have ethics guidelines that also appear to guard against this outcome. “Ethical journalists treat sources [and] subjects as human beings deserving of respect,” the Marshall guidelines state, and “journalists should not…highlight incidents out of context.” That means “be sensitive when seeking or using interviews or photographs of those affected by tragedy or grief. Show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.” The PBS guidelines state that “Producers should treat the people who are the subjects of, who appear in, or who are referenced in the content they produce with fairness and respect.” It specifies that “examples of unprofessional conduct by a producer include…insensitivity to tragedy or grief.” In cases that present a dilemma about whether to include “controversial or sensitive material” such as “extreme violence…or [content] that is morbid, sensational, or gratuitously offensive to general taste” the guidelines insist that “good taste must prevail in PBS content.”

Simple solutions for preventing this from happening to other people could include guidelines or limits in how publicly available information is used in promotional and online material. Or media organizations could provide a checklist for everyone working on a story to keep their code of ethics front and center as deadlines get met. It’s simply too easy to exploit information and people to advertise a story, especially if your mandate is to garner more clicks. Even in public media, the incentives are misaligned.

Of course there are times when publishing a 9-1-1 call is critical to a story, but If journalists continually use 9-1-1 calls as promotional material and then post on Twitter, will people think twice before calling emergency services? The 9-1-1 call data privacy rights has already been called into question in several states, as has federal regulation on location data. Do we need new protection laws, or can journalists be trusted to make responsible decisions on their own?

News coverage gives too little thought to the collateral damage its storytelling can cause the real-life characters in their stories. Through this experience I’ve lost faith not just in journalism but in the compassion of journalists. And in a time when journalism is being seriously undermined, it is a missed opportunity to raise the bar, act more humanely, and shape a media industry the public can be proud of.

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Raina Kumra works at the intersection of tech, media, and social justice as an investor and entrepreneur.