There are times journalists should become the story

May 23, 2017
Lewis Wallace talks on the phone outside a rally for Donald Trump. Photo by Steve Bognar.

I had a bit of an ordeal earlier this year that led to me losing my job as a national reporter, and these days, every time a journalist gets fired or quits and then writes about it, people text, email, and tweet at me. The stories echo one another.

The last time my phone blew up that way, it was about Desmond Cole, a freelancer who wrote a popular biweekly column for the Toronto Star. He resigned May 4 and took to Twitter: “@TorontoStar says I can’t be a columnist and an activist at the same time, so I’m giving up my column.”

Cole had been among a group of activists who disrupted a Toronto Police Services Board meeting on April 20, and he says he’d never agreed to, or even seen, the editorial policy at the Toronto Star that forbids journalists from participating in protest. And, to be clear, the Star didn’t fire him. He quit, stating simply on his blog: “If I must choose between a newspaper column and the actions I must take to liberate myself and my community, I choose activism in the service of Black liberation.”

The public editor at the Toronto Star responded to Cole’s departure with this headline: “Journalists shouldn’t become the news.” The column said the Star‘s editorial policy asks its writers to “avoid active participation in community organizations and pressure groups that take positions on public issues.”

That phrase—“public issues”—raises my hackles.

I’ve been racking up recent examples of journalists who have crossed the threshold between news gathering and becoming the news: Jenni Monet, an indigenous journalist arrested at Standing Rock who says she was strip-searched while her white cellmates weren’t; Ryan Kailath, a public radio reporter who was arrested at a Baton Rouge Black Lives Matter protest while he says white reporters were left alone; Jacqui Helbert, a queer woman who worked for public radio in Tennessee and was fired after legislators complained about a bathroom bill story; and me. I lost my job  at American Public Media’s Marketplace earlier this year after taking a public stance on the issue of journalistic neutrality in the age of Trump.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

RELATED: Journalists should be able to join the Women’s March

It strikes me that each of these recent cases of journalists becoming the news have something  in common: The journalist’s personal identity and lived experience were a part of the very “public issue” being debated.

Here’s what I mean: Whether police can and should kill unarmed black people with impunity in the US is a “public issue,” a subject for debate. Whether disabled people can access public accommodations is a “public issue.” Racial and gender targeting by police and prison guards is a “public issue.” Whether trans people can safely enter and exit bathrooms is a “public issue.” But in each case, these debates about rights, safety, and access only apply to a segment of the population that has been systematically targeted and excluded from privileges others enjoy. And that targeting and exclusion has a direct bearing on who can live and work as journalists, who is the target of violence or arrest in the field, and who gets and keeps jobs at major outlets. This sets up a conundrum for news organizations that claim to value diversity and inclusion, but insist on strict prohibitions related to advocacy.

When your survival is a “public issue,” a clear line between professional life and advocacy is exposed as a privilege.

For those of us whose very livelihoods and safety are matters of public debate, a prohibition on participating in “public issues” (or joining forces with those who do) can create a catch-22 that discourages us from becoming journalists, or pushes us out of the field.

Lewis Wallace interviews Jocelyn Robinson. Photo by Andy Snow Photography.

Lewis Wallace interviews Jocelyn Robinson. Photo by Andy Snow Photography.


Whose lives are a “public issue”?

Black writers and journalists have always had to defend black life to write about it. Take the historical example of Ida B. Wells, whose work on lynching in the late 1800s defied the mainstream journalistic narrative by revealing that most people who were lynched had not committed crimes. As historian Nathan Connolly said on a recent episode of Back Story, “because she cared about black life, she ended up writing better journalism.” At the time, the purportedly objective and disinterested New York Times called Wells a “slanderous and nasty minded mulatress.”

Or, take the story of the Chicago Defender, which reported every week on the atrocities of southern racism and segregationism for decades before mainstream northern papers began paying serious attention. The Defender was seen as “race writing” and “yellow journalism,” and yet it provides one of our most important records of stories not deemed worth telling by the papers of record until many, many lives were already lost.

The distance of these events in time only makes them more relevant: That there is a raging debate in North America today over the phrase “Black Lives Matter” ought to tell us how little the status quo has changed. While most white journalists can see a speeding ticket or a busted headlight as an inconvenience, black writers wonder whether they’ll make it to work alive.

The debate over transgender people and public restrooms reveals a similar problem with the idea that journalists should never become the news. In many parts of the country, transgender people can be harassed or even arrested for using bathrooms that align with our gender identities. And our right to be free of job and housing discrimination and exclusion from public facilities on the basis of gender identity remains unprotected under federal law. As a journalist in the field, I have almost constantly faced this tension between my role as journalist, and my life as public issue: Every time I use a public restroom, I am potentially either disobeying a law, or risking harassment and violence.

RELATED: ‘No one else is going to speak for us’: LGBTQ media rise in age of Trump

Transgender women of color bear the brunt of the violence and exclusion associated with the debates over trans lives. Thus, it’s not a coincidence that so few transgender women of color occupy seats as national journalists and columnists (there are some, of course, and you should follow them). It also isn’t just a result of outright discrimination by individuals in the media industry or a lack of outreach. It’s a result of often violent exclusion from society, from public space, from education and health care.

Changing these conditions requires active change in culture, power, and policy. That doesn’t mean every trans person is born an activist; many despise the role. But when your survival is a “public issue,” a clear line between professional life and advocacy is exposed as a privilege.


Should journalists all be advocates?

Some readers are probably flipping out at this point, wondering whether I’m saying that all journalists should protest, and life should become one big conflict of interest. I don’t want to completely erase the line between journalism and activism. This is partly because I don’t believe journalism and activism are interchangeable; they may overlap, but I think the role of the writer and the storyteller is different than that of the propagandist or protester.

Journalists need curiosity, independence, and open-mindedness to drive what we do, and the part of journalistic ethics policies that deals with conflicts of interest is important to maintaining independence. Reporting on people or things you are involved with is sticky business, and transparency is key.

So I’m not suggesting we throw conflict-of-interest considerations to the wind. But, as others have argued, editors at mainstream outlets should consider whether some journalists, some of the time, could participate in advocacy or protest. Could they protest and disclose it? Protest and avoid writing about the specific issue or incident? Protest and write about it? If no, why not? Is the reason about truth or about perception? These questions seem particularly salient in the context of Desmond Cole.


I’m doubly frustrated with the state of the debate on this because, since I was fired from my own job for a public statement about the state of journalism, I get many interview requests on this topic. Most journalists who are employed full-time are discouraged from speaking publicly about anything, lest we become the story and thus disobey the ethics policies of current or potential employers. My situation has made clear to me that there is essentially a prohibition on public debate over whether journalists should participate in public debate.

Rather than continually discouraging journalists from having a voice on “public issues,” I think it’s beyond time for credible, fact-based journalism to put itself under the microscope. Rather than reject Cole’s premise, what about engaging the important questions raised by his departure from the Toronto Star? What is the purpose, truly, of a policy that only leads to losing another diverse voice from a national platform?


“Diversity” is not enough to end systemic exclusion

We can’t actually talk about diversity and inclusion without talking about power and oppression, institutional cultures, policies, and practices. My own experience as a visibly out transgender person provides evidence for this: Nobody in my community would be able to be a journalist without the decades of responding fiercely to attacks on our lives and safety, to the public debate over our bodies. That I am white, masculine-presenting, and from a class-privileged background is also a huge part of why and how I am able to be visible in my trans identity without being under constant attack.

My situation has made clear to me that there is essentially a prohibition on public debate over whether journalists should participate in public debate.

A blanket prohibition on activism has real consequences for this purportedly desirable “diversity.” Cole had already seen his Star column cut from weekly to bi-weekly, and he says he’d been discouraged from writing about “carding,” a policing tactic in Canada that many say amounts to racial profiling (and the tactic he was protesting in April). As Cole writes, institutions’ lack of interest in black people who actually work to change power structures “is bad news for emerging local black journalists and journalism students, most of whom are black women and many of whom tell me they are also being shunned, not for their actions but for their radical and emancipatory content.”

Some have also pointed to a double standard in the way Cole was treated; Michele Landsberg, a white woman who used to write about feminism for the Toronto Star, says the paper encouraged her activism.

Toronto Star’s public editor, Kathy English, writes that she cares about diversity in the organization. But she also concludes her response to Cole’s firing with this: “no news organization that cares about its integrity should make or amend policy on the fly simply to accommodate any one voice or any one cause. Policies exist to create consistency aligned with values.”

Can the Toronto Star really claim to value its black opinion writers while prohibiting them from protesting against their own targeting and death? Well, sure it can. But not without raising the question of hypocrisy.

For those journalists who are not currently a target—a “public issue”—you could yet become one. Last week we saw reports that President Trump asked the former FBI director to jail journalists who leaked classified information. It’s a hallmark of authoritarian governments to crack down on journalists; try telling hundreds of jailed and censored Turkish journalists that the controversial nature of their status in society renders them unable to be “objective.”

When you imagine yourself in jail, does the cry to avoid becoming the news start to ring hollow? Perhaps it’s time to take a pause and listen to the perspectives of those who have already been there.

Correction: An earlier version of this column used the wrong name for Toronto Star Public Editor Kathy English.

RELATED: One question that turns courageous journalists into cowards


Lewis Wallace is a white transgender writer, editor, and multimedia journalist from the Midwest. He worked in public radio before becoming a freelancer, and his work focuses on people who are economically, politically, and geographically marginalized. Find him on Twitter @lewispants, or www.lewispants.com.